Film Review - The Blue Max (1966)
'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.
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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.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
Lt Bruno Stachel
Karl Michael Vogler
Colonel Otto Heidemann
Willi von Klugermann
General Count von Klugermann
Countess Kaeti von Klugermann
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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