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Modern genre movies can spend millions on unlimited special effects yet wind up as unimpressive exercises in digital manipulation. Although great work is being done as well, fans are beginning to look back at the critically ignored but lovingly filmed action and war films of the 1950s and '60s with a greater appreciation. Today we never know if our dashing heroes are only being filmed on a green screen stage, and then inserted into images created on a digital level. Watching a film from the '60s, what we see is what we get -- if the producer wants a squadron of aircraft flying in formation on a dawn raid over France, he has to find or build the planes, secure and train the pilots, figure out how to film them plane-to-plane, and then hope that the weather cooperates with his shooting schedule. It's a different experience when we know that real people were there, gambling that their effort will pay off in an impressive shot.
The Blue Max is a rousing WW1 aviation epic filmed on a lavish scale in Ireland with an English and American crew. Its tale of the first air aces has been updated from the old Errol Flynn and Howard Hawks "Dawn Patrol" formula with a cynical attitude toward the 'chivalrous' image of the glorious flying aces, in this case Germans hoping to survive long enough to earn the highest military honor the Kaiser can bestow, a blue and white medal. Blacklistee Ben Barzman contributed to the screenplay, while the main producer Elmo Williams would move on to Fox's even bigger historical war reconstruction Tora! Tora! Tora!
The film finds ways to make a rather grim story exciting, suspenseful and even sexy. Low born Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) transfers from the German infantry to the air corps and finds that he is the only commoner in his squadron. Experienced pilot Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp) takes a liking to him, despite Stachel's disdain for the chivalric rules of combat. Their competition sharpens when both vie for the attentions of Willi's aunt - Countess Kaeti (Ursula Andress), the notorious wife of General Count von Klugermann (James Mason). The General encourages Kaeti's philandering, and sees in Stachel a propaganda poster boy for the average German, to help steer the country away from Bolshevism. Although Stachel's ruthlessness disgusts his superior Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler), nothing can keep the pilot's career from soaring.
In 1966 most Americans' knowledge of WW1 flying aces was restricted to the adventures of Snoopy the Dog's efforts to shoot down the Red Baron in the comic strips. The Blue Max takes a decidedly less romantic view of warfare than the old movies with gallant fliers wearing long scarves and goggles. George Peppard was still on a career upswing in 1965 and this show is surely one of his best. Peppard is perfect as a former trench fighter with a chip on his shoulder pitted against his decadent comrades, devil-may-care playboys and titled adventurers. Peppard's Stachel refuses to play the gentleman's game, and ruthlessly assures that his kills are confirmed and tabulated on his campaign for his Blue Max. The sly Willi (maybe Jeremy Kemp's best role) is fascinated by Stachel's crude ways, and engages him in boyish games of competition. Willi only loses his sense of humor when Stachel moves in on his ravishingly desirable & promiscuous "Aunt" Kaeti. In several scenes we see Andress and director John Guillermin playing fast and loose with the Production Code, flashing bits of near-nudity. In one particular scene most male viewers pay such close attention to the position of a towel, they probably miss 50% of the dialogue.
Only James Mason is underused, as the Count whose wife is bedded by the two fliers. He's clearly the most powerful actor present and tends to unbalance the movie. But Mason scores when it comes time for his character to finally rein-in the impulsive and irresponsible Kaeti. One seething look from Mason and Ursula Andress is all but wiped off the screen.
The Blue Max creates an absorbing moral dilemma. Squadron commander Heiderman is a decent fellow untrusting of Stachel's blind ambitions. Believing in an old definition of chivalry, he expects Stachel to honor fallen warriors, particularly those of the enemy. After two years in the trenches Stachel has no interest in such hypocrisy - he sees his duty as killing as many of the enemy as he can, and that's that. Stachel would likely be reprimanded or punished if it weren't for the intervention of James Mason's General Klugerman (Mason). Propaganda and morale is Klugerman's business, and he wants Stachel to personify the workingman hero. He doesn't even care if Stachel may have been invented a couple of his kills, to get the Blue Max all that more quickly. But Stachel will find that the new ruthlessness of war means that even a hero can be expendable, if the high command determines that he's worth more dead than alive.
Director Guillermin and cameraman Douglas Slocombe obtain beautiful images from the Irish countryside. The production appears to have resurrected or constructed a couple of dozen vintage biplanes, tri-planes and at least one experimental monoplane for the film, and the footage of them flying is impressive. The traveling mattes used to show the actors in flight aren't always perfect but the shots are well designed and executed. If you want to see sheer madness in the air, go check out Howard Hughes' old Hells' Angels. The aerial dogfights in The Blue Max are exciting and realistic, and more than sufficiently thrilling.
Guillerman blocks out a "chicken run" daredevil episode for maximum effect, with Stachel and Willi flying under the narrow supports of a stone bridge. The use of space and the wide screen for the final air show / Blue Max ceremony is extremely suspenseful. Several of the main characters are present, but remain hundreds of yards apart while the new hero Bruno Stachel is given the privilege of showing off Germany's impressive new monoplane. With James Mason waxing ironic and Ursula Andress in tears, the dramatics are very nicely worked out.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Blue Max is a big improvement on Fox's old DVD from 2003. The whole look of the film is dark and rich, adding to the freshness of the pre-dawn French fields. The audio is of special interest, as it features a very highly regarded score by Jerry Goldsmith, breaking from his then predominant electronic sound for a lush orchestral feel. It's in 5.1 DTS-HD MA. The disc also has two Isolated Score track. The first is the complete music score and the second contains some alternate unused cues, along with a commentary from film music historian John Burlingame, Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo.
An original trailer is also included. Julie Kirgo's perceptive liner notes neatly delineate the perverse relationships between the new breed of German warriors.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Blue Max Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.