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.
The Video and Audio
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.