Film Review - The Blue Max (1966)

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INTRODUCTION

'The Blue Max' is the story of a First World War pilot in the German Air Force. Lt Bruno Stachel is a young recruit from the trenches, and the film follows his progress as he hones his skills and notches his kills one by one. But there is a problem; Bruno Stachel is ruthlessly determined, and this is more than a film about flying and air battles, 'The Blue Max' is a film about one man's ambitions and how those ambitions set him at odds with his fellow officers.

One ambition outweighs all others - Bruno Stachel has a burning desire to win Germany's highest award - the coveted Order of the Pour le Mérite, also known as the Blue Max.

Compared to the later nightmare of World War Two, films set in the First World War are thin on the ground, and films which feature the daring pioneer pilots of that war rarer still. This is one of the best.

WHAT'S THE STORY ?

At the start of the film, Bruno Stachel is just a young German foot soldier serving in the trenches of the Western Front in 1916. He is under constant bombardment from guns and mortars, and he is splattered with sodden mud. He isn't enjoying this unglamorous life. But then something attracts his attention - two aeroplanes are flying overhead, majestically aloof from the squalor of the mud and blood soaked trenches, fighting a personal duel in the sky. Bruno Stachel resolves that this is the war he wants to fight - a more glamorous war. And so he puts in an application, and he is accepted for pilot training, and in 1918 he finally gets his wish to join a front line squadron.

From the start, Bruno is a bit of an outsider, an ordinary man who has come through the ranks, with a very different experience of life to the officer class of the fliers of the First World War. It makes it difficult for him to make friends and gain respect. But Bruno has a bigger problem which alienates him from the other fliers - the foot soldier in the Great War is seeing comrades and friends dying at very close quarter every day, in ways bloody and Hellish. And this hardens the soldier to the brutalities of all out war. Now Bruno Stachel takes this state of mind to his new career, and into the gentlemanly champagne-drinking quarters of the German pilots. He shows a lack of respect and honour for those who die, and he receives a lack of respect from the pilots. So Bruno embarks on a ruthless quest to prove himself to his new comrades. Above all he craves the tangible recognition of glory - the award of the Blue Max.

Although Bruno's ambitions and actions cause consternation among his peers, he does show an aptitude, and as his kills mount rapidly, the high ranking generals see him in a different light; they see him as a potential folk hero for the ordinary people, and they choose him to be a propaganda role model. Bruno's star rises as he's feted and celebrated, and he soon finds himself moving in exalted circles where he becomes entwined in the family affairs of fellow officer Willi von Klugermann, Willi's uncle, General Count von Klugerman, and the general's glamorous young wife Kaeti. It's a fateful entanglement. Bruno's cold and single-minded behaviour both in the air and on the ground (and in the bed) mean that the controversies surrounding him continue to mount, and the chosen role model increasingly becomes a serious embarrassment. Ultimately his behaviour takes him too far along the dishonourable road for it to be ignored. The decision is taken - something must be done to protect German military reputation. Something must be done about Bruno Stachel.

For the foot soldier, aerial warfare offers a route to heroism and glamour
For the foot soldier, aerial warfare offers a route to heroism and glamour

MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS

ACTOR
CHARACTER
George Peppard
Lt Bruno Stachel
Karl Michael Vogler
Colonel Otto Heidemann
Jeremy Kemp
Willi von Klugermann
James Mason
General Count von Klugermann
Ursula Andress
Countess Kaeti von Klugermann
Anton Diffring
Holbach
Harry Towb
Kettering

THE FACTS OF THE FILM

DIRECTOR : John Guillermin

WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :

  • Jack Hunter (Novel)
  • Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina (Adaptation)
  • David Pursall, Jack Seddon, Gerald Hanley (Screenplay)

YEAR OF RELEASE : 1966

RUNNING TIME : 156 mins

GENRE : War

GUIDENCE : Typical battle violence

ACADEMY NOMINATIONS : None


KEY CAST AND CHARACTERS

One of George Peppard's principal film roles. He may well have looked the part as a handsome film star, but he was a rather one dimensional actor, and in this film one may feel he falls a bit short, as the role requires a subtly complex characterisation.

Karl Michael Vogler and James Mason play the two principal senior German officers and give capable performances.

Ursula Andress is there to look pretty and to provide one more complication in Bruno Stachel's life and one more wedge which can be driven into the ever widening gap between Bruno and the German elite.

Perhaps the best acting performance is delivered by Jeremy Kemp who plays the aristocratic Willi von Klugerman, a man who likes the good life, a man who has a liking for his uncle's young wife, and a man who is an ace flier. In all these respects he sees in Bruno Stachel a rival whom he mistrusts yet grudgingly respects.

The Blue Max
The Blue Max

THE BLUE MAX

The Blue Max was a medal of honour which dated back to 1740 to King Frederick II of Prussia and awarded by Germany to its fighting men. It took the form of a blue Maltese Cross which carried the French inscription 'Pour le Mérite', (because French was the language of the Prussian Court at the time of its introduction). In WW1 it became particularly associated with the Air Service, and was awarded to pilots with a significant number of kills (Initially the figure was 8 but this rose to 30 by war's end. The award of the coveted Blue Max was discontinued after WW1.

TRIVIA

George Peppard - a qualified pilot - did some of his own flying in this movie, though not the stunt scenes.

Real stunt pilots are often overlooked. Among the fliers in this movie was Peter Hillwood, a Hurricane pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain. Sadly, he was to die in an air accident in the same year that this film was made. Another was Joan Hughes, Britain's youngest female pilot when she first took to the air at age 17. She was involved in the Second World War ferrying warplanes between factories and airfields and she also became one of Britain's first female flying instructors and test pilots. A third stunt pilot - Derek Pigott - did the bridge flying stunt, completing the flight under the arches more than 20 times.

FAVOURITE SCENES

In almost any war film which features pilots and aeroplanes, it's the air battles which make for the strongest scenes, and 'The Blue Max' is no exception. Dogfights between the vintage biplanes are great to watch and made all the more special by the fact that such planes are so rarely seen nowadays. These are battles of a bygone age, when flying was in its infancy, and it's easy to imagine what it must have been like for the pilots who went up without parachutes in these fragile machines of war. In 'The Blue Max' there is plenty of scope for dare-devil displays in combat, and one great stunt challenge in which Bruno and Willi test their abilities with a low level swoop down and through the narrow arches of a bridge.

Willi von Klugerman, Bruno Stachel, and Colonel Otto Heideman meet Baron Manfred von Richthofen - the legendary 'Red Baron' - in reality the top scoring ace of the First World war
Willi von Klugerman, Bruno Stachel, and Colonel Otto Heideman meet Baron Manfred von Richthofen - the legendary 'Red Baron' - in reality the top scoring ace of the First World war

FAVOURITE QUOTES

The best quotes almost all reflect the rift and the mistrust which exists between Bruno Stachel and the other officers. It does not take long for Bruno Stachel to alienate himself. Following the death of a colleague and Bruno's pursuance of recognition for his first ever aerial success, Willi von Klugermann confronts him:

  • By the way, Stachel, there's an impression around that you care more about your unconfirmed kill than you do about Fabian's death.

Bruno Stachel's reply reveals both the difference in his wartime experiences and a contempt for his air corp colleagues:

  • Perhaps it's force of habit. In the trenches, we couldn't even bury the dead; there were too many of them. I've never had the time to discuss them over a glass of champagne.

Willi von Klugerman develops a curious fascination for this young upstart, but is astute enough to recognise that Bruno is a potentially dangerous man to be close to:

  • 'You know, there's something of the cobra in you. I'll have to watch you.'

Towards the end of the film, the conflicting manner in which different officers regard Bruno stachel's behaviour, leads to disagreements between General Count von Klugerman and Otto Heidemann, Bruno's base leader. Heidemann wants Bruno to be court martialed for endangering the lives of his comrades and disobeying orders. The General, however, sees a deteriorating morale among the German people - now is not the time to court martial a great air ace:

  • Revolution is just beneath the surface! If that happens, everything we stand for will be destroyed, unless the German officer corps stands like a rock, intact, and what is more important - untarnished. I made this Stachel into a national hero for good military reasons. If I court martial him now, it will reflect on the integrity of the whole officer corps.
  • Herr General, I see now, I have notions of honour which are outdated.
  • They're not outdated. Stored. With care, and love, for better times.

Jeremy Kemp as Willi von Klugermann
Jeremy Kemp as Willi von Klugermann

NEGATIVES ?

I believe it's fair to say that 'The Blue Max' is not a film to be noted for its great character development. Although many more than capable actors performed in the film, they were always going to be secondary to the action. Certainly there is little attempt to truly explore the motivations which lay behind Bruno's ambition. His behaviour seems ambiguous. He clearly has some contempt for the upper class officers around him, yet these are the very people he has chosen to associate with, and whose respect he craves. Why has he joined them in their lifestyle only to detach himself from their philosophy? Why has he developed this need to prove himself better than they are? It's not really clear in the script which explores nothing of Bruno's past other than a brief glimpse of his time in the trenches, and it's not really clear in George Peppard's portrayal, which lacks emotional power.

Kaeti von Klugermann seems a very shallow character too. The only motivation for having her in this movie seems to be to add a bit of sex appeal, and to add some bitter spice to the relationship between Bruno and the Klugermann family, but the plot line involving her in relations with her older husband, her uncle and with Bruno Stachel seems rather convoluted. Just why is she playing around with three different people who are all in close contact with each other? Surely she knows it's destined to end in tears?

Basically, Bruno Stachel's route to heroism and disgrace is somewhat unconvincing, though that in no way detracts from the action in the air.

Ursula Andress and George Peppard indulge  in a complex and fateful relationship
Ursula Andress and George Peppard indulge in a complex and fateful relationship

WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT ?

For all the hundreds of movies set in World War Two, there are comparatively few which portray the action of World War One, and even less that show the aerial combats. This in part would be down to the dearth of ancient biplanes still airworthy enough to fly in simulated dogfights. 'The Blue Max' therefore provides a welcome glimpse into the life of the pilots who flew these planes in anger, a mere ten to 15 years after Wilbur and Orville Wright first managed to hop off the ground and remain airborne for a few hundred yards. Certainly the air combats have an authentic feel to them, and so does the lifestyle of the officers - a comparatively relaxed lifestyle of men who, though free from the desperate discomfort and nightmare existence of the trenches, nonetheless faced the prospect of an exceedingly short life span. So many novice pilots, pitched into battle after just a few hours flying instruction, did not even survive their first mission.

The story of Bruno Stachel is less convincing than the fight scenes or the general airfield activity, but there is an interesting piece of role reversal here, which makes the film a bit different from the norm. One would normally expect the aristocrats who ridicule Bruno Stachel to be cast in the negative role. Dashing young interloper Bruno should be the working class hero. But he isn't. He is a man with everything going for him save for a fatal flaw in his character. He doesn't care about anybody save himself.

IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM ...

The Blue Max
The Blue Max

DVD Region 1

 
The Blue Max (Cassell Military Paperbacks)
The Blue Max (Cassell Military Paperbacks)

The novel on which the film is based

 

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

'The Blue Max' is a flawed film, but a film nonetheless which makes for an enjoyable two and a half hours of entertainment. The script and the acting and the improbable love quadrangle, all make it difficult to really identify with or care about any of the characters. But the action sequences are among the best of any war movie, and the concept - of a man who seeks the heights of glory and instead finds the depths of disgrace - is a theme worth exploring.

PLEASE PROVIDE YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THIS FILM

5 out of 5 stars from 1 rating of this film

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I'D LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS. THANKS, ALUN 10 comments

Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK Author

alancaster149, I would agree about George Peppard. I don't mind him as a film star, but a role like Bruno Stachel is a complex role and it requires an actor with more emotional depth to pull it off. With Peppard in the lead and with limitations of the script, it was a wasted opportunity to explore what makes Stachel the driven character he is. Still an enjoyable movie though, and I like the analogy with Sharpe.

Thanks for visiting (from about 40 miles down the road) and cheers for the thoughtful comment. Alun.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

James Mason and Jeremy Kemp probably carried the rest of the cast in this, a flm that launched George Peppard's early career. I watched it a long time ago - when dinosaurs still roamed Romford Market - but wasn't impressed with Georgie boy. He was a newer, 'prettier' version of John Wayne and had a long way to go, via 'Barefoot in the Park' with Jane Fonda. The Blue Max is a later sort of 'Sharpe' in the air, resented by fellow officers who think him an upstart. He probably was, like Sharpe, except our Napoleonic rifleman never let the glory go to his head. If they re-made the Blue Max they would have to hire somebody like Colin Firth - who can actually act. Leonardo de Caprio would be an obvious choice, but after his stint as Achilles I don't think he could cut the mustard. Another, even prettier John Wayne!


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Mr Archer; I had to rent a DVD before I could write this review. I needed to brush up on my own memories of it because it was so many years since I last saw it on TV. Warm thanks for your generous comment, and I hope that if you get to see 'The Blue Max' again, you enjoy it as much as you did the last time. Cheers. Alun.


Mr Archer profile image

Mr Archer 4 years ago from Missouri

I'd forgotten about this movie. I saw it years ago, and loved it. Thanks for jogging my memory; now I'll have to search for it and watch it again. Great review, hits all the high points, and great character assessment as well.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks Trish. Lovely to hear from you again, and I appreciate your comment.

It is a good film, so if you do catch it sometime, I hope you enjoy it. The rise in the reputation of Bruno Stachel and his simultaneously growing alienation from the other pilots is interesting to watch. I guess like your dad, a lot of people will enjoy the aircraft and air battles - I've seen some of these really old planes at airshows and they are both attractive and fragile, yet also of course lethal in their day. Alun.


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Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Derdriu;

Re - the quotes. Occasionally I will find them online, but usually I watch the film with a notepad at the ready! For most of the reviews I either own a DVD or video, or else I rent a DVD specifically for the purpose of writing the review. Then it's easy just to keep pausing and rewinding to get it right, or else put the subtitle facility on to note the precise wording of the quotes.

I think you're right about the film makers. The General (James Mason) is too concerned with reputations and image, Kaeti is playing around with three different men and ends up spurned and bitter, and some of the airmen are too aloof from the harsh realities of war. As for Bruno Stachel, he is a bit like a Greek or Shakespearian tragic hero - a man with talents and no doubt some good qualities, but with a flaw which brings about his downfall. The head of the airbase, Otto Heidemann, is perhaps the most sympathetic character - a top air ace, but also a man who believes in codes of honour and respect.

I thank you very much for your visit Derdriu. Much appreciated as always.

Alun


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands

Hi :)

I remember my parents going to see this film. It was my Dad who wanted to see it ~ he was very keen on planes, and, if I remember correctly, I think that he enjoyed it.

I didn't go. I was probably considered too young. And, somehow, I haven't seen it in the meantime, either.

This was a very interesting review and resume. Thanks!


Derdriu 4 years ago

Alun, How do you get your sample quotes down so pat? Is it an excellent ear/memory for retrieving conversations? Or do you have access to the scripts?

In particular, I find the information about the three stunt pilots and the background about the Blue Max award fascinating. It fits very nicely into the well-organized way in which you always share information in your film reviews.

It must have been exciting for the actors to meet with the Red Baron. He looks much younger than I'd have expected from all the strains and stresses of his personal/professional life.

Do you think that we the audience are supposed to like any of the characters? Perhaps the film subtly tells us to be careful whom we choose to admire and set on pedestals?

Bruno fits in with some of the ancient Greek fighter heroes, particularly Oedipus who accomplishes a lot but has so much anger, bitterness and impatience ever ready to express itself.

Up + UABI (not meant to be funny, correct?) ;-[]

Shared.

Respectfully, and with many thanks, Derdriu


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Cogerson thanks a lot for that comment and review. I took out a DVD to watch this film again before writing the hub because it's been a long time since I last saw it on TV. On seeing it again, there were undoubtably elements which disappointed, but it remains a great war film to watch with great action sequences. Alun.


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 4 years ago from Virginia

Hey Alun....I just watched The Blue Max for the first time about a month ago.....I agree with your "Negatives" about the movie....I did not buy George Peppard at all in the lead role....James Mason was outstanding in his role....especially at the end of the movie.

I also agree with you about the role reversal part of the movie....normally we would be rooted for the star.....but I actually sided with James Mason more. I actually liked Colonel Otto's character the best...I was sorry to see his character die....not sure I was too upset about the end of the movie and Peppard's fate.....voted up and across the board.

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    In a series of illustrated articles, the author gives personal easy-to-read reviews of some of the most watchable films in Hollywood history



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