“Up-to-date machines go to experienced pilots. Both are in short supply.”
The war in the air during World War I was a not-uncommon subject of films during the late 1920s and 1930s. Wings (1927), by virtue of winning the first Academy Award for Best Picture, is perhaps the most famous title, but others are also well known, including Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930) and two versions of The Dawn Patrol (1930, directed by Howard Hawks and 1938, with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone) — both of which have their adherents. Lesser-known films include Ace of Aces (1933) and The Eagle and the Hawk (1933). With the coming of World War II, interest in portraying events of the first War waned. William Wellman, who had directed Wings, returned to the subject with the somewhat mundane Lafayette Escadrille (1958), but then there was a further lapse of almost a decade before Twentieth Century-Fox released The Blue Max (1966) — a full-blown CinemaScope extravaganza with an intermission.
Fox has now released the film on DVD with intermission intact as part of its third wave of Fox War Classics.
Bruno Stachel is a new, young pilot in the German Air Force in 1918. He comes from a working class family and finds himself at odds with the other flyers in his squadron, all of whom are of an aristocratic background. Stachel soon proves his skill in the air, but he makes little effort to curry favour with the other pilots and seems intent only on building up his total of “kills” — downed Allied aircraft. His goal is to reach 20 such kills, which will qualify him to receive the Blue Max, the air force’s highest award of merit.
Stachel does strike up an uneasy partnership with the squadron’s top pilot, Willi von Klugermann. Through Willi, Bruno meets the Countess Kaeti von Klugermann with whom he begins an affair. The Countess’s husband — General Count von Klugermann — tolerates the affair because he recognizes the military propaganda possibilities in Stachel’s aerial successes. Eventually, Stachel reaches the 20-kill mark, but he has falsified reports of downed aircraft in the process and his squadron commander Otto Heidemann demands that Stachel be court-martialed.
General von Klugermann attempts to suppress Heidemann’s demands and plans a grand display for the awarding of Stachel’s Blue Max, but things do not go according to plan.
There’s something about George Peppard movies, at least those he made in his prime, that makes them guilty pleasures for me. Films like The Carpetbaggers, Operation Crossbow, and The Blue Max all feature Peppard’s rather wooden acting technique and pot-boiler plots, but their production values are very good and each has components that make them worth repeated viewings. With The Carpetbaggers, it’s the work by Alan Ladd in the supporting role of Nevada Smith; with Operation Crossbow, it’s the sheer pleasure of a well-executed war action thriller; and with The Blue Max, it’s the masterfully staged aerial sequences and the attention to period detail.
If The Blue Max‘s plot on the ground tends to ramble a bit and starts to look predictable only partway into the film, it’s more than compensated by some of the finest aerial photography and imagery of World War I fighting planes that you’re likely to see. Whether engaged in dogfights with Allied aircraft or just swooping amongst the clouds or down over the green fields of France (actually, Ireland stood in for France in shooting the picture), the planes are photographed with skill and artistry by aerial photographer Skeets Kelly. The filmmakers have rounded up a fine-looking collection of biplanes and triplanes, which contributes to the authentic feel of the film. Much of the aerial action is nicely set to soaring music composed by Jerry Goldsmith.
Compensating for Peppard’s acting limitations is an excellent supporting cast headed by the always-fine James Mason as General von Klugermann and Ursula Andress as Kaeti. It’s a rather thankless role for Andress, but she makes the most of it and she conveys a real sense of passion in the carefully shot bedroom scenes between her and Peppard. (Watching an artfully-placed towel makes for an interesting diversion during one lengthy scene.) Perhaps most impressive is the work of Jeremy Kemp as Willi and especially Karl Michael Vogler as Heidemann. Anton Diffring, a familiar face from war films of the 1960s and 1970s, does nicely as General Klugermann’s aide.
Fox has given us a very good 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of the film on DVD. The source material appears to be in pretty good condition, although some blemishes are apparent from time to time. Most of the indoor scenes look very sharp, but the outdoor ones suffer from noticeable grain at times. In general, the colour is quite vibrant, blacks are deep and consistent, and shadow detail is good. Edge effects are not an issue.
We are offered a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround sound mix that makes very limited use of the surrounds. It effectively functions as a stereo mix and as such does a quite adequate job. Jerry Goldsmith’s music is nicely conveyed, although it’s not as dynamic as I would have expected. French and Spanish mono tracks are provided as are English and Spanish subtitles.
Extras are limited to English, Spanish, and Portuguese trailers for the film, plus trailers for five other Fox War films.
Despite a lengthy running time (156 minutes) and a plot that tends to get bogged down at times, the aerial sequences and attention to period detail in The Blue Max make it an easy film to like and enjoy repeated viewings. Virtually anything with James Mason is worth your time, even with star George Peppard virtually sleepwalking through his role. Seeing things from the German perspective also makes for a welcome diversion. Fox makes it easy with a nice-looking DVD effort. Recommended.