Saturday, July 4, 2015

CRACKER? The Blue Max (1966)

                “The Blue Max” recently won my Best Dogfighting Movie tournament.  Now it’s time to see how it holds up as a war movie. 

                Considered one of the definitive WWI air combat films, “The Blue Max” was directed by John Guillerman (“The Bridge at Remagen”).  It is based on the novel by Jack Hunter.  The title is a reference to the German medal officially called “Le Pour le Merite”.  The movie had a big budget and an international cast.  It was a moderate success at the box office and got mixed reviews.

                The movie begins on the Western Front in 1916.  Corporal Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) is an infantryman in no man’s land.  He witnesses a dogfight from a shell crater and dreams.  While the credits roll with a dogfight as a back drop, two years pass and Stachel becomes a trained pilot.  He is sent as a replacement to a Staffel where it is revealed that he is the only commoner amongst the noble German knights of the air.  His first mission is against an observation balloon.  He is flying an obsolete Pfalz D.III  They get bounced and he manages to shoot down a British S.E. 5 in an exciting treetop chase.  When he returns to base, Stachel is obsessed with confirming his kill and not at all concerned with the loss of his wing mate.  His search during a rain storm at night convinces his squadron mates that he cares only about getting the twenty victories necessary to win the Blue Max.  This perception is cemented when Stachel attempts to bring a British reconnaissance plane back to his air field, but is forced to shoot it down at the last moment.  It comes off as him making sure he gets a confirmed kill this time.  His squadron commander Heidermann (Karl Voger) is incensed with this violation of the rules of chivalry and is determined to get rid of this son of a hotel keeper.
"Great Mr. Peppard, now hold that sneer."
                Stachel’s rival in the squadron is an ace named Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp).  Klugermann is the nephew of General Klugerman (James Mason) and is having an affair with the general’s trophy wife Kaeti (Ursula Andress).  The rivalry in the sky becomes a rivalry between the sheets.  Who do you think she will pick – Peppard or Kemp?  As Stachel’s total mounts, General Cuckold sees him as a people’s hero that can be used for propaganda purposes.  This puts him at odds with the moralistic Heidermann who wants to can Stachel.  Heidermann is pushing for a court-martial after Stachel falsely claims two victories scored by another pilot.  Confronted with the possible tainting of his golden boy, Gen. Klugermann needs to find a way to convert the hero into a martyr.
"Willi, I want to make it clear that this medal is
not for sleeping with my wife!"
                “The Blue Max” advances three themes that probably would have perplexed the generation that lived through the Great War.  First, there was a rigid class structure in the German Air Service.  No matter how talented and successful Stachel became, he would never be accepted by the snooty aristocrats that were his squadron mates.  By having Stachel come up from the infantry, the movie is connecting the ground war with the lower classes and the air war with the upper classes.  An underappreciated moment in the movie comes when Stachel is scolded for not celebrating that day's victories and ignoring their losses.  He responds:  “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.”   Not an inappropriate analogy.  Second, Gen. Klugermann represents the military’s attempts to manipulate the media.  “Truth is the first casualty in war” was not said about WWI so the movie is backdating that idea.  Third, the movie has a theme of the evils of the military industrial complex.  This may be a bit anachronistic, but Gen. Klugermann being in bed with Anthony Fokker is not a stretch.  WWI was the first industrialized war and thus must have been the first war where industrialists and the military had a symbiotic relationship.  It was not as developed at this stage as the movie implies, though.  The movie reflects a 1960s sensibility on these themes.  Speaking of which, the Kaeti character would be more at home in that decade.

                The movie reflects its big budget.  The interiors are opulent.  Not surprising for a WWI combat movie because the pilots are of course billeted in a chateau.  A lot of the budget went into the small air force of replica air craft the movie employs.  We see Pfalz D.IIIs, Fokker D.VIIs, and Fokker Dr. I triplanes.  The cast of planes is in some ways more impressive than the cast of actors.  Guillermin matched the machines up with a cadre of outstanding stunt pilots.  One of those pilots, Derek Piggott, did the famous flight under the bridge spans more than twenty times.  The dogfighting is the most memorable thing about the movie.  There is nineteen minutes of it to balance the soap opera aspects of the film.  There is a “Hell’s Angels” style melee that shows how modern cinematography had made air combat better.  And then CGI came along, so the pendulum has swung back.  The movie has outstanding sound effects which is an underrated aspect of air combat films.  Similarly, the score by Jerry Goldsmith is superb.  It soars with the planes.  Typical of a WWI air epic, the movie insists on getting down and dirty in the trenches.  There is an extended strafing scene and a large-scale trench battle that is marred by having the British soldiers come out of their trenches to meet the Germans in no man’s land!   This was done to get the Tommies out in the open so the German fighters could drop bombs they did not have.  Talk about insulting your audience’s intelligence.
This is what a non-CGI dogfight looks like
                 “The Blue Max” is refreshingly devoid of clichés.  It does have the granddaddy of the dogfighting tropes: the main character is obsessed with glory.The acting is fine.  Peppard has taken some criticism, but he does a good job in a difficult role.  (Critics should have been more impressed with the fact that he learned how to fly so he could be in more shots.)  In 1966, the anti-hero had not quite developed into the icon we have today so he had to walk a fine line between jerk and misunderstood jerk.  Amazingly, Jeremy Kemp steals the acting honors.  His Willi is suavely cynical.  And he’s sleeping with his step-aunt!  The best dialogue is the exchanges between Bruno and Willi.  James Mason is perfect as the Machiavellian Gen. Klugermann and Vogler is great as the righteous Heidermann.  (By the way, they both played Erwin Rommel in movies.)  The weak link is Andress, of course.  She is not there for her acting ability obviously.  On the plus side, there is some chemistry between her and Peppard.  On the minus side, she keeps her clothes on, mostly.
Damn you,  towel!

                 In conclusion, although it is  the best movie about dogfighting, it is not a great movie and may not make my 100 Best War Movies list.  In  my opinion, there is still an opening for an outstanding example of this subgenre.  Dogfighting movies are still waiting for their "Das Boot".

GRADE  =  B 

the trailer

a dogfight

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

WAR SHORT STORY READALONG: "Chasing the Major-General"

Chasing the Major-General” is a short story by the famous artist Frederic Remington.  Remington is the artist most associated with the West of the Indian Wars.  His paintings of cowboys, Indians, and the cavalry helped establish our image of the Old West.  Most people do not know that he also fashioned himself a writer.  This particular short story was for Harper’s Weekly.  Remington’s presence was requested by Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles.  Miles was one of the more well-known Indian fighting generals.  He had made a name for himself in the Nez Perce (Chief Joseph) campaign and the capture of Geronimo.  The story is set in a mission by Miles to escort an Indian commission to negotiate with the Northern Cheyennes.  Miles had a dream of becoming President and saw Remington as a means to that end.  He had to put up with Remington’s excessive drinking which ironically held up the commission on occasion, but the flattering story was worth the trouble. 

                The story is about Remington trying to keep up with the gung-ho general.  Although not meant to be comical, the image of the portly general galloping ahead of his column is the big take-away from the story.  Miles is the model of a general who leads from in front – far in front.  The weird thing is that Miles was not conducting a campaign to catch and defeat hostile Indians.  So what was the hurry?  Personality is the key.  Speaking of which, we get a good impression of Remington from the story.  He was known as “The Soldier’s Artist” because he idolized the cavalry and lionized them in his paintings and writings.  (He later would justify Wounded Knee as the soldiers defending themselves.)  He has some very interesting opinions that come through in the story.

                Remington declares that there are two types of cavalry generals in the West – wagon-men and horse-men.  Wagon-men rely on wagons for logistics and horse-men travel more quickly by packing supplies on horse-back.  Or rather mule-back.  Miles was a horse-man.  Obviously Miles also believed in a general riding on horse and setting the standard for his men.  This could be dangerous especially at night.  One unlucky step into a gopher hole or one unseen ravine could result in death.  Riding like a maniac brings questions as to Miles fitness to lead a nation, but apparently Remington and Miles felt the story bolstered his chances.  One also wonders about the attitude of Miles toward the horses.  Remington describes the horses as inferior.  He criticizes the military for paying $125 for $60 horses.  It’s clear that the profligacy of the Pentagon is not new.  And these horses were expected to gallop sixty miles in a day!  And in the case of Remington, carry a 215 pound artist attempting to ride in the “European style” with legs tucked to his chest.  He humorously describes trying to ignore the catty comments of the Westerners.  Remington does seem to know horses.  He offers the interesting opinion that “while you can teach a horse anything, you cannot unteach him.” 
when you do a self-portrait,
you can trim some pounds

                Remington also has some interesting things to say about the Army.  He is scathing in his comments about the reason for the poor support from Washington.  His theory is that by the time a soldier reaches the higher ranks and go off to the capital, they feel they have earned the right to slack off.  This results in the leadership of the Army being conservative and cheap.  He specifically had some opinions on the Battle of Little Big Horn when they visited the site.  Not surprisingly, Remington blamed the defeat on the lack of initiative of Reno and Benteen.  He opines that the role of these subordinates should have been to march to the sounds of the guns.  When in doubt, go in and fight until you drop.  Best to end up a “dead lion” than a live survivor.  He has insights on the officers as well.  He describes them as being cogs in the machine except when their individuality comes out in battle and before breakfast.

                The piece is well-written.  I did not expect Remington to be competent as a writer.  I was very familiar with his paintings as I am a big fan, but I was only vaguely familiar with his literary endeavors.  He has a booze-flavored style to his writing.  I did not find about his fondness for the bottle until after I read the story, but it makes sense.  The story has a sense of humor typical of a genteel toper.  He doesn’t mind poking fun at himself.  The story is excellent at portraying the personalities of two famous men.   Although nothing particularly exciting happens, the story is charming and worth reading. 

GRADE  =  B-

Next month's story:  The Colonel's Ideas

Sunday, June 28, 2015

SHOULD I READ IT? Angel’s Wing (1993)

                “L’Instinct de L’Ange” is a French film that had a remarkable run in my recent tournament to determine the best film about dogfighting.   It is set on the Western Front in the early years of the war.  It is not your run of the mill air combat movie and has a unique central character. 

                Henri (Lambert Wilson) is a rich boy who has tuberculosis.  His health condition prevents him from volunteering when France goes to war with Germany.  Refusing to give up on his dream to serve his country, he gets flying lessons in anticipation of eventually passing an induction physical.  He learns to fly in a rickety monoplane and when the hole in his lungs closes, he is allowed to join the French air corps.  On arrival at his base, he is counseled by a veteran pilot named Devrines (Francois Cluzet).  He gives him practical advice like how you can tell when you are flying over the front because the German anti-aircraft shells are black and the French are white.  He also learns the best tactic is to hide high in the sun, get in the enemy’s blind spot, and then close to fifty meters to be sure to hit your target.  His initiation is a bit rough as he crashes upon landing twice which gets him put on probation.  Eventually he gets to prove himself against the daily German observation plane.  He uses his back seat machine gunner to get the kill and becomes an instant hero with the nickname “German Smasher”.  This must be early in the war.

                It turns out Henri is a born fighter pilot.  Unfortunately, as his success grows, so does the resentment from his squadron mates.  Part of it is envy and part of it is the belief that his luck is draining their stock of luck.  That’s right he is the opposite of a Jonah, to use a nautical equivalent.  Even the commander suggests he take it easy, he is putting too much stress on his mess mates!  This is not your typical fighter squadron, although it could be a typical French squadron.  He does get wounded and crashes after his thirtieth victory, but since he survives he gets no cred from his mates.  When Devrines predicts that the experience will cause him to become timid, we get a remarkable scene where he tails an observation plane and allows the machine gunner to expend all his ammunition without fighting back.  Things come to a head when his comrades start sabotaging his plane.  This results in an aerial duel between Henri and one of his comrades.
Henri is the only pilot in the French air force
who wants to shoot down Germans

                I did not like “Angel’s Wing” at first.  Wilson was a bit wooden as Henri, but he grows on you as does the character.  Henri is patriotic, but not obsessed.  He is not a glory hound like you see in a lot of dogfighting movies.  He just believes the war is about shooting down enemy planes and is perplexed (as was I) over his peers’ lackadaisical attitude toward that simple strategy.  They look forward to the reward of two days off if they shoot down one plane.  The Devrines character is intriguing as well.  He wavers between being Henri’s mentor and his critic.  The two actors dominate the film with the supporting cast making little impression.

                The strength of the movie is its unusual script and its unique take on WWI air combat.  The movie had a limited number of aircraft available, but they are vintage.  You get to see a Morane, Farman, Spad, Rumpler, and Fokker Dr. 1.  The acrobatics are outstanding.  There is no use of CGI so the movie is the opposite of “Fly Boys”.  The movie gets some nice touches in.  We see a listening post that has four giant hearing aids.  It is really neat to see Henri have to stand up in flight to change his machine gun drum.  There is not a lot of actual dogfighting and all of it is duels instead of melees.  No one shoots down a plane except Henri.  The movie could have easily been a play and that’s a compliment.

                It’s not the best dogfighting movie, but it is worth the watch.  It avoids almost all the standard clichés and is unpredictable.  Just be aware that if you watch the subtitled version, the translation sucks.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

CRACKER? Von Richthofen and Brown (1971)

                “Von Richthofen and Brown” was another recent participant in my Best Dogfighting Movie tournament.  It did surprisingly well for a movie that is not very well known.  It was Roger Corman’s  attempt to go beyond his B-movie / cult movie reputation.  He had a much bigger budget than for films like “Bloody Mama” and Gas-s-s-s”.  It was his second war movie after the classic “The Secret Invasion”.  Unfortunately, his experience in the filming of “Von Richthofen and Brown” resulted in his directing only two more films in the next 37 years.

                The recently arrived Von Richthofen (John Phillip Law) arrives at his squadron and has a rough landing.  He then proceeds to show his mindset by rushing to take a souvenir from his first kill.  He has trophies made for each subsequent victory.  Pilot obsessed with glory – check!  Von Richthofen meets the famous Oswald Boelcke who advises him to come from out of the sun, get in close, don’t waste ammunition, and only fight if you have an advantage.  Soon the Red Baron has ten kills and is fast becoming a celebrity.  Meanwhile, Roy Brown (Don Stroud) has arrived at his RAF squadron where he makes an immediate impression by refusing to join in a toast to Von Richthofen.  He does not believe in that chivalric bull shit.  He is a modern warrior.  “I’m just a technician, I change things.  Put a plane in front of me with a man in it – I change him into a wreck and a corpse.”  He is also a cynic.  When asked “who’s next?”, he responds “we’re all next”.  Somehow Brown bullies his way to leadership and has his squadron hunt in packs with a plane as bait.  These two main characters are bound to duel.  The Knight of the Air versus the Hunter of the Sky.
Don Stroud don't give a damn about his hair

                The movie is a roller coaster ride of scenes that are either entertaining or farcical.  The entertaining ones include Von Richthofen’s  encounter with the British ace Hawker and the climactic duel with Brown.  In between we get the Red Baron crashing in no man’s land so we can get a small-scale fire fight and not one but two attacks on air fields.  This being a Roger Corman film, there is a truly ludicrous moment when Fokker shows off his new plane while a hottie caresses it and he speaks in sexual innuendo!  This is a fun movie if you are in the right mood.

                Corman made no claims to historical accuracy and it’s a good thing he didn’t.  In spite of that, there is a smidgen of accuracy to be found here.  The Red Baron did replace Boelcke, but did not contribute to his death.  He did shoot down Hawker, but not in spite of the Brit motioning that he was out of ammo.   He did collect silver cups and his combat tactics are pretty close to his philosophy.  The script inserts Herman Goring as the villainous counterpoint to Von Richthofen when actually he did not join the Flying Circus until after the Baron’s death.  At one point, Goring actually argues that it is okay to strafe nurses and even “gas them”!  On the other hand, the Brown character is almost totally fictional.  He was not in the RAF.  He was in the Royal Canadian Air Force.  Instead of being a jerk, he was a well-respected squadron commander who insisted his charges be well-trained before seeing combat.   As far as the final duel, the movie basically sticks to the official version that credits Brown with the death of the Red Baron.  Most authorities feel Von Richthofen was actually killed by a bullet from an Australian anti-aircraft gun.  It is not surprising that the movie does not show that version.
Law did some of his own flying -
just like in "Barbarella"

                It is hard to get a hold on this movie.  “Directed by Roger Corman” sends a signal that the movie should be inferior to most war movies.  However, VR&B is definitely not your typical Corman movie.  It was a labor of love for him and he went all out on it with a much larger budget than he had ever had before.  This started with the purchasing of most of the aircraft used in “The Blue Max”.  VR&B used twelve planes including replica Pfalz DIIIs,  S.E. 5s, Fokker D.VIIs, and Fokker Dr.Is.  It’s a very nice line-up for a glorified B-movie like this.  The planes do not just sit at the airfield.  The movie has a large amount of dogfighting in it – 24 minutes.  That quantity is the most of any of the sixteen movies in the dogfighting tournament.  The quality is fairly high.  There are fine acrobatics by the stunt pilots, one of whom was killed.  Stroud and Law learned the rudiments of flying and they were filmed in the back seats as though flying.  Unfortunately, although the cinematography is well done, it is repetitive.  We get a lot of pilot’s faces, guns firing, and the use of smoke trails to indicate a plane has lost the battle.

                While the film deserves an A for effort and a B for dogfighting, it is inferior in all other areas.  The acting is wooden from the B-list cast.  Law was a poor choice for Von Richthofen, but Stroud does bring charisma to his role.  Still, we are talking about Don Stroud here.  The actors are not helped by the dialogue which is stilted and pious.  They are also placed in some ridiculous scenarios like the German attack on the British airfield while they are celebrating their attack on the German air field.  It does result in numerous cool explosions (from fighter planes bereft of bombs). 

                Does it crack the 100 Best War Movies of all time?  No way, but it is a nice time waster if you don’t invest any brain cells in it.  Make sure you do not watch it to get the true story of the death of the Red Baron.