Some 39 years separate William Wellman’s seminal, Oscar-winning, Wings (1927) from John Guillermin’s The Blue Max (1966); the latter, a magnificently mounted roadshow war epic in Cinemascope and DeLuxe color, featuring some fairly impressive aerial stunt work to counterbalance its deathly dull back story about an elite force of German flyers. The film never lacks credibility – its’ forgivable cheats on actual period aircraft used in the movie expertly masked by Wilfrid Shingleton’s tremendous production design and Fred Carter’s equally splendid art direction; both first rate and awe-inspiring . These assets have been captured for posterity in Douglas Slocombe’s jaw-dropping cinematography and infrequently interpolated with Jerry Goldsmith’s somewhat imperious underscore, calling out the leitmotif of ‘Deutschland über alles’ without actually playing that song. The movie’s tagline ‘there was no quiet on the western front’ is, of course, a rather obvious reference to another iconic WWI Oscar-winner made by Lewis Milestone in 1930.
In hindsight, The Blue Max is an exemplar of a certain era in movie-making when big, bloated spectacles competed for box office cache. And in many ways, The Blue Max fits perfectly into 2oth Century-Fox’s great pantheon of wartime pictures dedicated to the deconstruction of heroism, viewed from the perspective of its damaged human participants; a tradition begun by production head, Darryl F. Zanuck with Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and carried all the way through to Zanuck’s personally supervised combat epic, The Longest Day (1962); the gloss and gallantry increasingly replaced by a more bitterly introspective realization about the genuine toll, aftereffects and fallout inflicted on the human psyche. Indeed, it was Zanuck who covetously snatched up the rights to Jack D. Hunter’s novel, infusing the screen version of The Blue Max with all the chutzpah of a bona fide testimonial, or perhaps epitaph befitting the ‘great war’.
The Blue Max is undeniably big. But it lacks that certain je ne sais quoi all its predecessors had in spades; particularly Wings. William Wellman’s feats of aerial daring on Wings are unlikely to be surpassed. In contrast, Darby Kennedy’s stunt coordination in The Blue Max is stimulating, yet only in a class by itself if one hasn’t seen Wings beforehand. Wellman had his stars perform their own stunts with heavy cameras mounted onto their biplanes; a debatably foolhardy endeavor with the real threat of severe injury or death constantly looming from the peripheries of the screen. By comparison, Kennedy’s stuntmen perform some death-defying midair maneuvers in The Blue Max. Regrettably, however, these have been interrupted in the editing process by inserts of the featured cast set against some fairly obvious and terribly unconvincing rear projection; the blue-screen mattes blatantly revealed and diffusing the impact of the genuine footage shot for real in mid-air.
The Blue Max would be an effective piece of period drama – for it provides the only comprehensive visual record of WWI in blazing color and widescreen (neither at the film maker’s disposal between 1914 and 1918); approaching the war from the ‘enemy’s perspective’ and critiquing what ought to have been intricate discernment about the conflicted altruism/abject callousness of these elitist pilots. Too bad the film is marred by an exceptionally wooden recital from its star, George Peppard (refusing to adopt anything like a German accent) as Corporal Bruno Stachel – the haughty and wholly unscrupulous prig whose warped sense of chivalry prevents him from becoming one of the war’s true heroes. The movie’s Stachel is not the character derived from Jack D. Hunter’s celebrated novel. While screenwriters David Pursall, Jack Seddon, Gerald Hanley have retained Stachel’s suppression of deep-seeded insecurities about his modest upbringing, they have jettisoned his chronic alcoholism (a source of empathy for the character in the book) and gone for the more traditional cliché of the ‘ruthless German’; a blonde-haired, and very blue-eyed narcissist; self-assured, yet simultaneously self-destructing under the weight of his own arrogant desire to possess the Pour le Mérite; the highest order of merit afforded any flyer in the German Air Corp. for racking up twenty confirmed kills or more.
The screenplay also plays fast and loose with several key elements from the original story; chiefly in its penultimate comeuppance for Stachel, tricked by General Count von Klugermann (James Mason) into test-flying the new monoplane. Stachel’s orchestrated crash and burn is witnessed by hundreds of spectators gathered at the airfield during Germany’s steeply declining supremacy in the war. What no one – except the audience – knows is that Klugermann has been informed of a formal inquiry regarding Stachel’s claim of two kills that ought to have gone to fellow flyer, Lieutenant Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp) – the general’s nephew. This leaked information comes from Stachel’s spurned lover, the Countess Kaeti (Ursula Andress) who also happens to be Von Klugermann’s wife.
Yet despite Stachel’s unapologetic betrayals of Klugermann’s relations, Klugermann begrudgingly sacrifices Stachel to save face. For it was Klugermann who first recognized Stachel’s unprincipled greed rife for the exploitation, creating a deity in the media from this most unworthy man – thus, giving Germany what it needs (manufactured valor in place of the real thing). At least initially, Stachel was up for perpetuating this great lie. After all, he desperately wants that shiny symbol of freewheeling masculinity – the Blue Max - dangling about his neck…but at what price? In the novel, Stachel actually murders Willi, perhaps out of some implied vengeance perpetuated against his own class - the ‘fat aristocrat’ snuffed out by this lower class upstart and four-flusher. The killing is further justified in Stachel’s mind by his discovery of Willi’s affair with the rather promiscuous Kaeti. The movie is a bit more sentimental about Willi’s demise. He is wastefully lost in a game of airborne chicken with Stachel proven the better flyer – perhaps – though decidedly not the better man.
Honor plays a big part in The Blue Max – or rather, its definition as reconstituted by the less than self-sacrificing. On the nobler end of this spectrum is Stachel’s superior officer, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (given inner luminosity and weighty distinction by Karl Michael Vogler); a true soldier as it were, setting personal distinctions aside for the good of his country. There is built-in pride to this man, unqualified and pure; utterly disqualified in Stachel, who refuses to abide under Heidemann’s tutelage and dictums. Honor is more corruptible in Klugermann’s mind – a distinguished military strategist not above misusing Stachel’s egotism to serve a larger purpose – guaranteed to centralize his own stake in this power struggle. Stachel’s lack of honor (indeed, he has only a remedial comprehension of what that word means) is ultimately what gets him killed; enterprising motives blindsided by jealousy and the most undiluted form of raw, self-destructing ambition.
Yet, The Blue Max takes an interminable amount of time to get to these more lascivious interior motivations. Presumably to establish the movie as an epic, we begin with an extended prologue; a perilous trek across the war-ravaged, barb-wired front. Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) is the sole survivor of a particularly brutal gas attack in the trenches. Spying his first aircraft sailing overhead, Stachel is immediately stirred by this dream-like phoenix to transfer from the infantry into the German Air Corp. Joining an elite squadron of flyers in Spring, 1918 – the tail end of the war – Stachel is determined to win Imperial Germany's highest military decoration for valor, the Pour le Mérite (a.k.a. Blue Max). But time is running out. The war may be over in a matter of weeks. Worse for Stachel, is his modest background, a chronic source of embarrassment. His fellow pilots all come from privilege; particularly, Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp), the nephew of noted high-commanding officer, General Count von Klugermann (James Mason).
The squadron is presided over by Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler); an upperclassman of the old school to whom chivalry is an essential ingredient for winning the war. But Heidemann’s integrity conflicts with Stachel’s heartless fortitude. Only one thing matters to Stachel – the Blue Max. He’ll have it by any means at his disposal. Willi’s attempts to befriend Stachel are met with steely resolve (Peppard unable to punctuate his sparse dialogue as anything better than the vaguely absurd petulance of a fairly psychotic loner). Stachel makes it known his idolized hero of the skies is Von Richthofen (a.k.a The Red Baron, and briefly glimpsed in a performance by Carl Schell). Stachel, of course, fails to realize the public relations machinery behind such deified supermen, largely manufactured to help propagandize the cause into victory.
On his first mission Stachel - flying a Pfalz D.III - manages to down a British S.E.5. But this early victory is ignored as an ‘unconfirmed kill’ by the high command because no witnesses were present. Rather peevishly, Stachel berates Heidemann – his personal scoring evidently far more important to him than any investment in the dogfight as an integral part of the squadron. Stachel spends a windswept rainy afternoon and evening scouring the French countryside for the plane’s wreckage to officially document his claim. He is unsuccessful, however, and returns to the base to find Willi in his room with a fresh bottle of brandy.
On his next mission, Stachel goes after an Allied observation aircraft, disabling its’ rear gunner. Instead of downing the vulnerable plane, Stachel signals the pilot to land – presumably to be taken as his prisoner. However, as both planes approach the airfield, the gunner stirs and Stachel has no choice but to finish what he started. He downs the plane in a fiery ball of flame, Heidemann suspecting Stachel simply of committing cold-blooded murder to earn his first ‘confirmed’ kill. While the mood between Heidemann and Stachel will increasingly becoming strained from this moment on, word of mouth reaches Klugermann, who has arrived at the base to award Willi the Blue Max. Klugermann is a wily politico. Sensing that Stachel’s greed can be manipulated to suit his own purpose, the manufacturing of yet another hero to help propagandize the war, Klugmann superficially befriends Stachel. At the presentation ceremony, Klugermann’s wife, the Countess Kaeti takes a passing interest in Stachel – unrequited at first, her rather transparent affair with Willi obvious to everyone present.
Stachel’s next moment of military distinction is quite accidental; shot down after defending a Fokker Dr.I attacked by a pair of British fighters. Back at the airfield, Heidemann introduces Stachel to the man he inadvertently saved; none other than his idolized war hero, Manfred von Richthofen (Carl Schell) – the Red Baron. Von Richthofen is congenial, offering Stachel a place of distinction in his squadron. It’s a plum role, and one any of the other pilots would not hesitate to accept. Perhaps wisely deducing that under Von Richthofen’s command he would forever be overshadowed by the legacy of such a legend, Stachel politely declines this offer, electing to ‘improve himself’ at his current post instead. Temporarily sidelined with a superficial wound, Stachel is whisked away to Berlin under Klugermann’s auspices, briefly introduced to Heidemann’s wife, Elfi (Loni Von Friedl); a nurse who poses with Stachel for staged photographs. In private, Elfi confides in Stachel wishes for her husband’s retirement from the Air Corp.
Klugermann arrives just in time to preside over the gaggle of sycophantic reporters he has hired to capture this fictitious moment for posterity. Stachel doesn’t care much for this exploitation. But Klugermann sweetens the deal by inviting Stachel to his estate for a grand party hosted by his wife; quite aware Stachel is to be Kaeti’s latest sexual conquest. The ‘love’ scenes in The Blue Max are tantalizingly eerie; director Guillermin and cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe conspiring to evoke a queer, devouring and chaotic pas deux. Kaeti and Stachel’s renewed sexual détentes incorporate obscure lighting and severe tilt-pans, suggesting more voracity in their shared appetite for debauchery than any mutual affection.
Upon Stachel’s return to the base, Willi jealously confronts him about Kaeti; Stachel unable to conceal his satisfaction with a grin and a chuckle, believing his cock of the walk has surpassed Willi’s prowess in the bedroom. The next afternoon, Stachel and Willi volunteer for a reconnaissance mission. Once in the air, they are attacked by a squadron of British fighters. Stachel’s guns jam. But Willi dutifully picks off a pair of British flyers, then another in hot pursuit of Stachel’s plane. The other fighters quickly disband. But Willi now engages Stachel in a game of aerial chicken; repeatedly dive-bombing between the stone pillars a narrow bridge and encouraging Stachel to do the same. These low passes place them precariously close to the trees and nearby, half-bombed out tower. Unable to resist the dare, Stachel matches Willi dive for dive, anteing up the stakes by flying between an even narrower span, thus forcing Willi to do the same to prove his stealth. Tragically, Willi clips the tower with his landing gear, loses control and crashes into some nearby trees.
At base, Stachel reports Willi’s death to Heidemann, but takes credit for the two downed enemy aircraft Willi dispatched, despite an investigation of his plane revealing only forty rounds used before his gun’s jammed. Suspecting foul play, Heidemann refuses to file Stachel’s report. Instead, he goes to Klugermann with his suspicions about Stachel. Klugermann is sympathetic, but explains to Heidemann that Stachel’s kills will be confirmed. Heidemann refuses to be a part of this charade, resigning his commission and pleading with Klugermann to appoint him to a desk job. At Willi’s burial, Stachel and Kaeti exchanged panged expressions that ominously register both fear and excitement. Later that evening, Stachel and Kaeti meet again to indulge their sexual whims, Stachel quietly confessing to her that he lied about Willi’s kills.
On his final tour of duty with the squadron, Heidemann orders Stachel not to engage nearby enemy flyers. But Stachel, nearing the magic number of twenty necessary to secure him the Blue Max, defies these direct orders. As a result, half his squadron is lost in the perilous dogfight that ensues and Heidemann places Stachel under arrest. Once again, Klugermann intercedes on Stachel’s behalf, telling Heidemann that the people demand a hero – particularly since the tide of the war has turned against Germany. Sensing the beginning of the end, Kaeti elects to run off to Switzerland, encouraging Stachel to abandon his dreams and join her instead. Stachel’s rebuke of this offer incurs Kaeti’s wrath. Going above her husband’s authority, Kaeti leaks information about Stachel’s dishonesty to Germany’s high command; his entire record suddenly brought into question and slated for an official inquiry yet to follow.
Klugerman expedites Stachel’s awarding of the Blue Max by Germany’s Crown Prince (Roger Ostime) in a highly publicized event on the airfield. Too late the Field Marshal telephones Klugermann to cancel this ceremony. Making his own inquiries as to how the reported information was leaked, Klugermann is informed that Kaeti is the instigator. It now becomes clear to Klugermann what sacrifices will have to be made in order to spare the Air Corp its reputation, but also to save his own skin. Klugermann instructs Heidemann to test fly the new monoplane – an aerial assignment that ought to have gone to Stachel, immediately following the award’s presentation.
Heidemann reluctantly complies, flying the unproven aircraft. But he is barely able to make his landing; informing Klugermann that the plane is a ‘death trap’. Klugermann now encourages Stachel to do ‘some real flying’ in the unsafe aircraft. Unaware of the plane’s deficiencies, Stachel’s ego takes over. He takes off into the wild blue yonder from which Klugermann understands he will likely not return, performing a series of death-defying aerial maneuvers high overhead. Tragically, Stachel is unable to land the monoplane. He crashes off in the distance in a hellish ball of flames as the terrified crowd rush toward the wreckage; Klugermann calmly taking his wife by the arm and ushering her into a nearby car, coldly explaining to her that they will be late for dinner.
The Blue Max is impressively mounted, but a rather stodgy big screen experience to get through. Ironically, its’ dower ending isn’t the problem. Rather, at 156 minutes, the movie tends to outstay its welcome whenever any of the aforementioned fly-boys feet are firmly on the ground. The screenplay isn’t entirely to blame. Another actor might have made something more of Lt. Bruno Stachel than George Peppard’s starched-britches psychopath. It really is a one-dimensional and fairly ugly performance we get from Peppard and it’s a tough sell from the moment we are introduced to his wholly inscrutable though utterly devious schemer right up until the penultimate moment of his mind-numbing fireball impact with terra firma.
The outstanding performances herein belong to Karl Michael Vogler, as Heidemann, and to a lesser extent, Jeremy Kemp’s Willi Von Krugermann. The death of Willi almost immediately following the movie’s intermission leaves Volger’s noble man of action to do the heavy lifting – at least, from a dramatic standpoint. Volger is more than up to the challenge. Except that the screenplay negates Heidemann’s importance shortly thereafter to very minor support in the second half, leaving the audience to grapple with the peculiar lover’s triangle of Stachel, Kaeti and Gen. Krugermann – the latter, what nature – or at least, the movies – abhor: the enervated failure of masculine virility.
When excised of their rather hammy inserts shot against a blue screen, many of the flying sequences are quite impressive. Douglas Slocombe’s camera soars into the clouds with stealthy precision, capturing a bird’s eye view of these aerial theatrics designed to enthrall – and they do. Still, for authenticity I prefer ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman’s sepia tinted and B&W sequences in Wings to the expansive Cinemascope footage shot for The Blue Max. Call it a bias. But I’ll take Wellman’s classic to Guillermin’s overblown melodrama any day of the week.
2oth Century-Fox’s hi-def transfer on The Blue Max via Twilight Time is generally a cause for celebration. The 1080p transfer is sharp and finely detailed with exceptional clarity throughout – proof that when the studio wants to, it can remaster a catalogue title to yield rather stunning results. What is less acceptable is the overall teal bias. A goodly number of Fox’s Cinemascope movies transferred to Blu-ray have adopted this unsettling color imbalance. Early sequences in The Blue Max appear to suffer more so from this grossly over-saturated teal hue. Even the whites of Peppard’s eyes and his teeth have adopted a slightly bluish tint. I’m not certain whether this is an issue of improper color balancing during the hi-def mastering process or a case of early vinegar syndrome plaguing the original camera negative.
Either way, it’s problematic; the Germans grey trench coats are greenish/blue. Flesh is ever so slightly leaning toward the orangey palette, while reds appear greatly muted. This transfer favors blues, greens and beiges. Again, it isn’t a question of color-fading, but of an inaccurately balanced spectrum. Never having seen The Blue Max in theaters I cannot state for certain this isn’t how the movie looked back in 1967; although I can’t imagine so heavy a slant toward teal ever being a part of The Blue Max’s original presentation.
Despite my concerns herein, the odd color isn’t a deal breaker in my opinion. It just looks off, occasionally to the point of distraction. On the plus side is the remastered 5.1 soundtrack, showcasing Jerry Goldsmith’s superb score. Wow – and – ‘thank you’! Just fantastic. Ditto and kudos to Twilight Time for providing us with an isolated track. Herein, we also get another treat: a second isolated track featuring alternate music cues with insightful commentary provided by historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. Great stuff! Finally, Kirgo once again fleshes out the movie’s backstory in Twilight Time’s much appreciated liner notes – treasured tidbits other studios seem to have entirely given up on providing with their Blu-ray releases.
Bottom line: The Blue Max isn’t an exceptional war movie in my opinion. But it has been hand-crafted with a high level of competence and an undeniable stellar degree of historical accuracy. As Kirgo’s notes point out – the movie has inspired scores of film makers toward mimicry of its stylistic elements. It should equally impress most war buffs, aficionados and the layman merely looking for a good solid way of passing a few hours in front of the TV. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)