It is 1918, and World War I rages between Germany and Britain along the Western Front. Corporal Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) is sick of fighting in the trenches and watching his comrades die, so he enlists in the German Army Air Service instead. When he arrives in his squadron, he is immediately cast as the outsider thanks to his family limited means. The closest thing he has to a friend is Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp), a man who is two enemy planes away from earning The Blue Max, a decoration of valor given to those who shoot down 20 aircraft. Willi is not exactly nice to Stachel, but he's intrigued by his bitterness and anger. After Stachel's honesty is questioned and his superior, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler) takes issue with his methods, Stachel becomes relentlessly, coldly focused on getting a Blue Max of his own.
The Blue Max is an intriguing war picture, one of the rare films that focuses on not only a bastard of a protagonist, but one not warped by "the horrors of war." Stachel is petulant and an egomaniac, driven only by his need to be "respected", even if achieving that means stepping on everyone else along the way. He's not inherently evil, starting out as a person who is angry and bitter but still willing to follow orders, but there's no particular indication of warmth or kindness in him. Whereas other protagonists in similar stories have been consumed by a need to prove themselves, Stachel's pursuit of The Blue Max seems to reveal his true self, rather than corrupting him.
Things start to go wrong for Stachel when he gets his first kill, shooting down a British plane over German airspace. When one of his superiors calls to confirm the kill, focus shifts from Stachel's success to the death of another German pilot. Stachel is furious, taking it upon himself to search for the wreckage, but coming up empty. It could be argued that trying to get credit he deserved is not the most callous decision, but there's also no reason to argue with his squadron's opinion that he cares more about his status than the death of a fellow soldier. He follows this up by bringing an enemy plane into camp, only to shoot it down when a gunner he believed to be dead attempts to fire on him. Hauptmann is suspicious that Stachel killed the man out of spite over the lost kill, an accusation that permanently puts Stachel and Hauptmann at odds with one another.
As the film progresses, Stachel makes friends in high places, which allows some of his abrasiveness and bluntness to go unchecked. General Count von Klugermann (James Mason), Willi's uncle, believes Stachel will make for a great political tool, bringing him to Berlin for some high-profile photo ops while he's recovering from a bullet wound. He also gets close to the General Count's wife, Kaeti (Ursula Andress), who turns her attention away from Willi and over to Stachel. Much of the drama comes from Stachel's decision to poision most of the relationships he has that are faintly friendly, including both Kaeti and Willi. Stachel views Kaeti as less of a legitimate romantic interest and more an element in his ongoing competition with Willi. At times, Willi seems to want to pass along some of his wisdom to Stachel, but Stachel continues to view their relationship as a game, which results in disaster. For a brief period, Stachel's confidence is thrown, but even this moment of weakness stems from an excess of pride and bitterness. Kaeti briefly sees his softer side, but their final scene together is Stachel at his coldest and most mercenary, uninterested in anything but himself.
The film features plenty of spectacular aerial combat sequences, as well as several ground combat sequences that are still impressive today in terms of scope and scale. Although the crash sequences are technically spectacular, the really impactful ones all take place in the distance, far from the camera. Director John Guillermin mostly makes efficient use of grand sets and wide vistas, but one of the film's last sequences offers a bold, cutting flourish that cements The Blue Max as a film that documents darkness during wartime that takes place almost entirely off the battlefield.
As is the norm for most Twilight Time releases, The Blue Max is graced with a piece of original poster art on Blu-Ray, which is quite nice and action-packed. The disc comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-Ray case, and there is, of course, a booklet featuring liner notes by Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo.
The Video and Audio
Twilight Time presents The Blue Max in a 2.36:1 AVC 1080p presentation that looks nice, although, not as nice as The Eddy Duchin Story or Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The image is surprisingly grainless, but offers a strong amount of high-def detail. The edges of the frame are naturally a bit softer and sometimes show warping thanks to the anamorphic lenses, and optical effects can look quite bad, even dipping down to DVD levels of softness with big white optical haloes, but other optical shots and most of the movie looks quite good. The one major, major caveat to the quality of the presentation is the aggravating, almost certain application of "modern" color timing to the transfer. Admittedly, I have never seen The Blue Max before, but the hint of bronze in people's skintones and blue tint to everyone's green uniforms is unmistakable. Why studios (20th Century Fox, not Twilight Time, which simply uses the masters provided) keep up with this revisionist tactic is beyond me.
Sound is a DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track which sounds pretty good. The aerial combat scenes are predictably the big draw, and there's a reasonable amount of directionality and separation in this mix, although some touch of age does creep in, and the acoustics of the strage are somewhat emphasized in one late scene with Ursula Andress. Dialogue is clean and clear, with no pops, scratches, or other abberations, and music sounds fine. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Two major extras are included. The first is a mixed audio commentary and isolated score track. Normally, Twilight Time records both separately, but it's likely that the length of The Blue Max (2 hours and 36 minutes) led to Twilight Time's Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, joined here by author Jon Burlingame, chose to comment here instead. The other reason is that their commentary is almost entirely devoted to the music, as Burlingame's writing is focused on music. Personally, I didn't have enough investment in the music of The Blue Max to sit through the entire film again, but they comment on a number of Goldsmith's touches, and the track also features some cues not used in the finished film. As a secondary extra, there is also a devoted isolated score track. The disc wraps up with an original theatrical trailer for the film, as well as the usual Twilight Time menu catalog.
The Blue Max struck me as unique, a film that uses war as a backdrop to highlight the pettiness of those around it. Each of the players thinks only of themselves, of the way they are perceived, and yet this inevitably leads to a situation where all of them must make decisions that would haunt anyone with a conscience for the rest of their lives. Although Twilight Time's Blu-Ray edition suffers from some revisionist coloring, it's an otherwise fine disc for a fine, if brutal, film. Recommended.
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