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The Blue Max: More than an Air Combat Movie
“The Blue Max” is a 1966 movie set in World War I. It is among the best air combat movies. The story is centered on ‘the enemy’. The allied characters get only cameo appearances. This article contains spoilers. So anyone who is not familiar with the movie, and who is interested in seeing this movie in the future, should not read the next capsule. The obvious spoiler is the main characters are on the losing side.
This movie begins with Unteroffizer[i] Bruno Stachel (George Peppard), a German infantryman, running through no man’s land with a few other German soldiers. Enemy fire picks off the other Germans. Stachel makes it to a trench then looks up and sees an aerial dogfight. After the title sequence Leutnant[ii] Bruno Stachel , a newly trained fighter pilot, is being driven to his fighter squadron. The pilots in the squadron are from the upper classes. Stachel is from the working class. His squadron mates view him as an inferior and Stachel’s behavior only serves to infuriate them. On his first combat mission Stachel’s leader is shot down and killed. Stachel shoots down an enemy plane. No one witnessed his air victory so he couldn’t get credit for the kill. Stachel showed no concern for his dead leader. Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp), the squadron’s top ace, scored his 20th kill[iii] which earned him the Pour le Mérite, nicknamed The Blue Max. When the pilots celebrated Klugermann’s achievement Stachel remarked he supposed Klugermann never got an unconfirmed kill. Klugermann told Stachel he had 3 unconfirmed kills. When Stachel said then you have 23 kills Klugermann corrected him saying he had 20 kills. On a subsequent mission Stachel attacked an observation plane. He incapacitated the observer and escorted the observation plane back to Stachel’s airfield. Over the airfield the observer regained consciousness and reached for his machine gun. Stachel opened fire, killing the tail gunner and shooting down the bomber. Stachel landed his plane, walked to the burning enemy aircraft, cut out the plane’s number, threw the number at the feet of the other pilot and remarked “here is your confirmation”. Stachel didn’t want to go to the funeral service for the men he killed. The squadron commander, Hauptmann[iv] Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler) didn’t believe Stachel’s version of the events. General von Klugermann felt if Stachel could stay alive long enough to be a hero it would be good for the war effort. The German heroes were from the upper classes. Germany needed a working class hero to encourage the working class to support the war. General von Klugermann brought his wife, Countess Kaeti von Klugermann (Ursula Andress) with him. The von Klugermann’s had an open marriage. This was indicative of the aristocracy’s decadence.
Stachel saved Manfred von Richthofen[v] (Carl Schell) but got shot down and wounded in the process. Von Richthofen offered to have Stachel join his squadron. This would have meant Stachel would have joined a new squadron where he would be respected by his peers. Stachel turned down the offer.
Stachel’s air conquests rose steadily. He also made Countess von Klugermann one of his conquests. This enraged Willi. Stachel and Willi were sent on a mission with the caution to be careful with the newest airplanes available. Top of the line aircraft and skilled pilots were in short supply. On the mission Willi shot down 2 aircraft. Willi and Stachel ignored what they are told and in a deadly game of flying between obstacles Willi had a fatal crash. When Stachel returned to base they get word of 2 allied aircraft shot down in the sector. Stachel was angered when they assumed Willi made the kills. Stachel claimed he made the kills and he was 2 air victories closer to getting The Blue Max. He tells Kaeti of his lie.
Later Kaeti proposed they go to Switzerland since Germany was going to lose the war. Stachel refused her offer. The Germans were developing a monoplane which would outperform the allied aircraft. It was not perfected but Stachel suggested the aircraft be built anyway since the Germans needed a superior aircraft to match the allied numerical supremacy. At the front the squadron carried out a successful strafing mission. Stachel spotted some British aircraft. Stachel signaled Heidemann. Heidemann looked back at the British planes then signaled they should keep on their course for home. Stachel peeled off and the rest of the squadron followed Stachel.
Stachel and the others engaged the allied aircraft. There were heavy losses on both sides. Stachel scored enough kills to qualify for The Blue Max. When they landed Heidemann was mad at Stachel because half the squadron was shot down. Stachel accused Heidemann of cowardice.
Heidemann gets a non-combat post. Stachel is to be awarded The Blue Max. General von Klugermann gets word Stachel is to be brought up on charges for taking credit for Willi’s kills. He learns Kaeti made the accusation. If Stachel was given a court martial General von Klugermann’s plan for a working class hero would be ruined. General von Klugermann has Heidemann check out the new experimental aircraft. Heidemann reports the aircraft was a death trap. Stachel was to take the aircraft for a test demonstration after he was awarded The Blue Max. General von Klugermann cheerfully tells Stachel the aircraft checks out alright and encourages him to do some real flying.
[i] Equivalent to a U.S. Corporal.
[ii] Equivalent to a U.S. Second Lieutenant.
[iii] The term “kill” refers to the destruction of an airplane not the fate of the crew.
[iv] Equivalent to a U.S. Captain.
[v] Manfred von Richthofen was nicknamed The Red Baron.
Twist on a Familiar Story
The story is familiar. Someone who is different comes into an organization. The insiders are prejudiced against the newcomer and throw obstacles at the newcomer. The newcomer’s competence shows up the insiders. A fair minded high level superior notices the newcomer’s performance and elevates the newcomer.
“The Blue Max” turns this story on its head. Stachel’s air combat skills were accepted. While he wasn’t liked there is no evidence they treated him any different than other new pilots. When he first arrived at the squadron Heidemann told him he would be flying the obsolescent Pfalz[i]. He attempted to tell Heidemann what they told him in flying school. Heidemann cut him off and told him better planes go to experienced pilots since both were in short supply. Stachel’s confrontational attitude and classless behavior left little reason for the squadron members to accept him. It wasn’t out of fair mindedness that General von Klugermann wanted to make Stachel a hero. Had General von Klugermann’s plan succeeded the aristocracy would remain in place and the aristocracy would still look down on the lower class people.[ii]
[i] In fact the Pfalz D.XII was not an obsolescent aircraft. It had some disadvantages compared to the Fokker D.VII it was a 1918 vintage aircraft.
[ii] What actually happened in post-WWI Germany is beyond the movie’s and this article’s scope.