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The Blue Max

The Blue Max
Fox Home Video
1966 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 156 150 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 14.98
Starring George Peppard, James Mason, Ursula Andress, Jeremy Kemp, Karl Michael Vogler, Anton Diffring, Harry Towb, Peter Woodthorpe, Derek Newark, Derren Nesbitt, Loni von Friedl, Frederick Ledebur, Carl Schell
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Production Designer Wilfred Shingleton
Art Direction Fred Carter
Film Editor Max Benedict
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina, David Pursall, Jack Seddon, Gerald Hanley from the novel by as Jack D. Hunter
Produced by Christian Ferry, Elmo Williams
Directed by John Guillermin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Blue Max is an entertaining WW1 flying saga, updated from the old Errol Flynn and Howard Hughes warhorses, though not without a few clichés of its own. Beautifully mounted by the producer who would next tackle Tora!Tora!Tora, it features stunning aerial scenes and sumptious cinematography on the ground by Douglas Slocombe. The story is reasonably serious, the actors are interested in their roles, and in this new Fox disc the movie plays like an epic, complete with an intermission and ent'racte music by Jerry Goldsmith.


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 becomes keen 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 actually encourages Kaeti's philandering, and sees in Stachel a propaganda poster boy for the average German, to help keep 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.

I don't see what so many critics have against The Blue Max, which for me was a very entertaining show both back in the theaters and now on DVD. The uncomplicated storyline ignores 'German against Frenchman' to concentrate on poor boy against rich boys. Young upstart Stachel represents the Dog-eat-dog ruthlessness of modern warfare, that the glorified air warriors have partially avoided. It's a gentleman's game in transition.

The various Englishmen and Germans who play German officers speaking English is also no problem, given the basic unpretentiousness of the project. George Peppard is a striking Stachel, common soldier turned poster boy for the Kaiser. All we need see is him staring up from his muddy trench at the planes wheeling above, to understand his views on the noblesse oblige of his aristocratic friends. This is one of Ursula Andress' best pictures, as she performs in her own voice and handles some fairly ambiguous scenes rather well. Her hairstyle may be all wrong for 1918, but she does have the proper hauteur for the role of a promiscuous Prussian in an open marriage. Jeremy Kemp doesn't have a lot of presence, but he is appropriately snooty as Stachel's high-born pal. He and Peppard had been teamed the year before in the exciting Operation Crossbow. Karl-Michael Vogler's sensible squadron leader has the thankless job of keeping the flying corps from looking like a complete soap opera. Capable in smaller parts are the arresting Anton Diffring (Fahrenheit 451) and the cadaverous Frederick Ledebur (Moby Dick).

Only James Mason is underused, as the Count whose wife is bedded by the two fliers. He's clearly the most arresting actor on the screen and tends to unbalance the movie. But he scores when it comes time for his character to finally rein-in the irresponsible Kaeti. One seething look from Mason and Ursula Andress is all but wiped off the screen.

The story gives Andress and Peppard some sexy lovemaking, with Andress wearing only a couple of bath towels. The emphasis on near-nudity must have had a big effect on the soon-to-come rating system that revamped the Production Code. I think 1966 posters for The Blue Max had the familiar 'we give up' text that read, "Suggested for mature audiences", but I gotta tell ya, the film was an eyeful for this moviegoer's 14-year-old imagination.

Douglas Slocombe's rich photography makes the airfields look beautiful under the rich skies of the Irish locations, and paints many interiors with lush, dark colors. Today's ability to digitally color films, only makes older movies that had to wait for the right light all the more impressive.

The planes themselves are fascinating, motorized kites that don't seem to go more than a hundred miles an hour or so. They buzz about in dogfights, while their pilots blast away at each other with machine guns. Airplanes were barely up in the sky before soldiers began mounting guns on them; it always seems a waste of such fine machines to see them used mainly for killing. The aerial photography makes them look great, especially in large numbers. About the only thing the vintage aviation epics have over The Blue Max is their use of actual cockpit footage for the flying closeups. Almost all of the pilot views here are blue-screen travelling mattes.

The film has plenty of combat scenes, but the script knows better than to let events become repetitious. The single most exciting moment is a risky game of daredevil between Kemp and Peppard, flying between the narrow supports of a French railway bridge. Director Guillermin laid out a good storyboard for the aerial sequences, keeping us oriented as to who is flying what and who is shooting at who. His blocking of the final episode at the air show / Blue Max ceremony is inspired. The action on the field is observed from two outbuildings where Mason and Peppard wait separately. The phone calls, eyelines, and movement to and from the field, emphasize Mason's cold manipulation of the event.

Stepping away from his jazzy spy scores, Jerry Goldsmith goes orchestral and provides The Blue Max with a full range of sweeping themes for the skies and the ballrooms; he doesn't stress martial music too heavily.

Fox's DVD of The Blue Max has a good transfer that leans to the dark side of scenes. It's rich and colorful, but doesn't seem to have gone through the studio's digital rejuvenation process, as dirt and even some damage are visible at times. The sound is in Dolby surround, and includes a nice intermission suite. I think the intermission was omitted from the 'nabe' screenings - I saw this and The Longest Day on a double bill that lasted almost seven long hours.

The good cover art shows Peppard in the infantry prelude, before he becomes a flier. Trailers in several languages are included.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Blue Max rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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