BR: Blue Max, The (1966)

March 26, 2014 | By


BlueMax_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent/ Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  February 11, 2014

Genre:  War / Action / Aviation

Synopsis: An arrogant German fighter pilot rises to the top during the waning months of WWI.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary Track #1: film historian Julie Kirgo and producer Nick Redman / Audio Commentary #2: Isolated Stereo Music Track with Alternate Cues and periodic comments by Kirgo, Redman and film music historian Jon Burlingame / Isolated Stereo Music track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Theatrical Trailer / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




After directing the East African war film Guns at Batasi for 20th Century Fox in 1964, John Guillermin moved on to the psychological drama Rapture (1965), an intimate character piece that featured some striking, almost French New Wave-styled cinematography and editing.

His next production for the studio, The Blue Max, seems almost anathema to his prior films, but even a small glance at the film reveals Guillermin was still dealing with a story involving a handful of characters. Jack Hunter’s best-selling WWI novel about Lt. Bruno Stachel –  an arrogant, hard-drinking German fighter who rises to the top – is set against the busy, epic background of air combat and raids on allied troops in France, but once again the focus of the script (banged out rather successfully by a succession of five screenwriters) is on just a handful of characters: hungry pilot Stachel (George Peppard), rival base captain Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler) and professional rival Willi (Jeremy Kemp). Appearing later in the narrative and becoming more crucial to Bruno’s success (and downfall) are the propaganda-minded General Count von Klugermann (James Mason), and trophy wife Kaeti (Ursula Andress), a sultry creature who’s complicit in Stachel’s destruction after lashing out in a strategic burst of anger.

In 1966, The Blue Max was treated as a prestige production by Fox, debuting as a roadshow release with reserved seats, and featuring an intermission  around the two-thirds mark. In spite of its superb air combat sequences and extraordinary cinematography and music, the film lacked a fully stacked roster of big name stars and a likeable central character, and it was through multiple TV airings that Guillermin’s film evolved into a moody aviation classic.

As film historian Julie Kirgo and documentarian / producer Nick Redman recount in the Blu-ray’s new commentary track, Blue Max was infused with a post-WWII viewpoint and the disillusionment of an emerging Vietnam War in what should’ve been an action-packed tale of jealousy, hunger, and sacrifice.

The script portrays the German fighters and their upper management as a troubled group where old world ethics and sense of valour are being replaced by nascent Nazi concepts of manufactured heroism to curry the sympathies of a fickle voting public in Depression Era Germany. Like the savvy and manipulative Joseph Goebbels, General von Klugermann sees opportunity in Stachel’s arrogance, and not only feeds the hunger of the pilot born into a low class environment, but throws in wife Kaeti for extra teasing to ensure his media-friendly hero stays happy, and loyal.

In the film’s pre-credit sequence, Stachel is a lowly foot soldier suffering in the trenches and wanting a career boost which might give him the respect and privileges denied to men of his class; and through (presumably) scrappy determination and resilience, he becomes a pilot of note, landing a plum spot in a regiment stationed close to the French border.

He excels through a combination of arrogance, greed, and skill, stepping on everyone’s toes including his seasoned superiors and colleagues, but when spotted by a visiting von Klugermann, Stachel is singled out as a kind of Aryan poster boy / noble fighter doing his duty; the image of a brave war hero is pushed to even mightier heights in the film’s unusually dour finale which may well have soured more than a few audience members during the film’s original theatrical run.



In the disc’s first commentary track, Kirgo describes the differences between the ending in the novel and the film, and although Hunter allowed the central character to live on in two more novels (both written several years later), the filmmakers took a greater risk by alienating audiences with a finale filled with stark nihilism. The end scene has virtually no dialogue; aside from a few quick remarks, it’s a powerful montage of reaction shots tied to the mounting tension as Stachel, flying a newly minted monoplane, becomes a martyr for the German war machine.

Like the Nazis’ development of powerful rockets with combustible payloads during WWII, the monoplane represents a last gasp of hope during a failing war, and as valuable as Stachel’s sacrifice may be to von Klugermann’s propaganda campaign, it’s pretty much all for naught, given Germany’s dwindling ability to sustain / end the war. (The parallels with the Nazis’ own final years during WWII are also tied in a short scene where Stachel meets the base’s replacement pilots – baby-faced, inexperienced kids similar to the naive youths seen shaking hands with Hitler in those familiar end-of-WWII newsreels.)

Guillermin’s final image consists of a majestic receding crane shot where smoke billows in the distance, and it’s an image utterly devoid of any hope or nobility. As Kirgo notes, Blue Max is about the villains of WWI who aren’t especially likeable in the film (Vogler, Kemp, and the ever-smiling Derren Nesbitt excepted). The movie’s also a showcase of failure – good morals, the retention of military honor, noble national ideals, and technological feats – contrasted ever so strangely with Jerry Goldsmith’s remarkable score which, as edited down and mixed in the film, seems fixated on celebrating a pilot’s (Stachel’s) sense of achievement and freedom in the air.

Guillermin dialed down and reduced much of Goldsmith’s score to strategic spots, making room for rich sound effects montages that add more realism to the already superlative flying sequences, but what music remains arguably keeps audiences sympathetic during an otherwise cold film.

There are brief moments where Stachel clearly has sympathy for men unable to free themselves from their class status – in the Main Title montage, a chauffered Stachel tosses a barely touched bottle of brandy to battle-worn foot soldiers – and while a cold, calculating figure, there is a sense he does care a little for Kaeti, but where Stachel is to be admired is in the dogfight sequences which rank as some of the best aviation footage ever committed to film.

Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is breathtaking, capturing flight with perfect clouds and sunsets in the background. Guillermin doesn’t exactly fetishize flight, but unlike current filmmakers, he respects the intricacies of a man and his flying machine, never over-cutting a sequence nor disrupting the flow of motion between singular and groups of planes in sustained shots.

Wide shots capture a pilot’s view, giving the aerial scenes a documentary quality, but they’re also beautiful to watch as the swarming planes, the chases, evasions, and death throes of battle are shown in wide CinemaScope. With few exceptions – The Battle of Britain (1969), and Von Richthofen and Brown (1971) where director Roger Corman used many of the same planes in its dogfight scenes – the quality of stunt flying and the fixation on authenticity is unequaled. (Executive producer Elmo Williams likely supervised the various stunts, having assisted in Fox’ epic WWII film The Longest Day in 1962.)

Fox’ HD transfer is very beautiful, offering high clarity in close-ups and wide shots, and a sound mix that really blossoms in uncompressed DTS. TT’s disc also includes the aforementioned commentary track with Kirgo and Redman that’s more about contextualizing the film within the war movie genre and the era during which it was made rather than offering straight production ephemera. The pair also use the occasion to pay tribute to Guillermin whose career would eclipse with The Towering Inferno (1974) and become rather banal in later years, as he tackled super-productions like both of Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong films instead of the smaller character films of his early years.

As a visual stylist, Guillermin’s imprint is a balance of documentary and glossy feature film elegance (showcasing the production’s sets, costumes, and locations), but also allowing for nuances tied to his own background as a wartime pilot (evidenced in the scene where Stachel tests the various wing flaps before take-off). There’s also the boldness of some scenes, such as the often murky, single take love scenes between Stachel and Kaeti, and the whirlwind tracking shots as the camera glides behind and around spectators as Stachel flies the monoplane in the finale.

The second commentary track features periodic observations from film music historian Jon Burlingame, Redman, and Kirgo between assorted alternate and unused music cues, and Goldsmith’s entire score has been isolated on a separate track, synced with the picture to impart a sense of how the film would’ve played had every cue been used in its original form.(Burlingame clearly favours more music, but he does acknowledge that Guillermin’s heavy use of sound effects during the flying scenes do give the film a docu-drama quality, and represent the creative wishes of the director.)

TT’s set also includes an appreciative essay by Kirgo and theatrical trailer, but unique to Fox’ 2003 DVD are English, Spanish, and Portuguese trailers, mono Spanish and French soundtracks, and straight English and Spanish subtitles.

Whereas Fox chose to create new cover art for their DVD release, TT stuck with the original publicity art which not only shows an angry Peppard firing multiple salvos from his dual machine guns (in the film, their firing rate is much slower, but no less deadly), but flying a red monoplane while fellow German pilots are all flying triple-winged machines. This is pure studio P.R. bullshit, given Peppard and his comrades fly biplanes, and only the Red Baron (who makes a ‘cameo’ appearance in the film) flies the iconic red, three-winged killing machine.

Perhaps the most appropriate closing for this review comes from director Peter Jackson via Julie Kirgo, who not only regards the film as one of the best WWI films ever made, but also sought out, found, and restored the very plane Peppard flew for his own personal film museum. That’s devotion, and it’s well-placed.



© 2003; revised 2014 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
IMDB  —  Soundtrack Album  —  Soundtrack Review — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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