Saturday, September 10, 2011

#400. The Blue Max (1966)

Directed By: John Guillerman

Starring: George Peppard, James Mason, Ursula Andress

Tag line: "The Raiding Squadrons of the Red Baron..."

Trivia:  One of the stunt pilots for this film was Joan Hughes, who became Britain's youngest female pilot at 17.  She would also go on to become one of that country's first female test pilots.

The Western Front, 1916. A German soldier, seeking shelter during an attack, leaps into a nearby trench. At that moment, he hears the sound of planes flying overhead. He peers upwards, his eyes filled with wonder, and knows immediately that's where he wants to be. 

The soldier in the trench is Bruno Stachel (George Peppard), and when next we meet him (two years later), he's fulfilled his dream of joining the German Air Corps. Things are a bit shaky for Bruno at first, due mostly to his own feelings of inadequacy (many in his squadron are members of the aristocracy, while Bruno hails from a working-class background), and he finds himself at odds with both his commanding officer (Karl Michael Volger) and fellow pilot Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp), who holds the squadron record for most enemy planes shot down. To prove he's as skilled a pilot as Willi, Bruno makes it known that he plans to down at least 20 planes, a feat that would earn him the coveted Blue Max, the highest award the Air Corps has to offer. With the support of General Count von Klugermann (James Mason), Bruno moves ever closer to his goal, and not even an illicit affair with the General's wife (Ursula Andress) can slow him down. 

Bruno is the lead character of The Blue Max, but he's far from one we can identify with, often allowing his resolve to get the better of him. During his first aerial mission, Bruno gives chase to, and successfully shoots down, a British SE-5, but because the army is unable to locate any wreckage, he doesn't receive credit for it. Unwilling to accept this, Bruno sets out to find the downed plane himself, dragging Corporal Rupp (Peter Woodthorpe) along to assist him. This doesn't sit well with his comrades, who are mourning the loss of a fellow pilot killed earlier in the day. By showing concern only for his personal achievements, Bruno has lost their respect, and will continue to lose it as the war progresses. Peppard does a fine job as Bruno, taking him from determined novice to cocky veteran, and leaving us shaking our heads at the depths to which he'll sink to secure the Blue Max. 

While The Blue Max does occasionally stagger (like many war movies of the '60s, it strives for an epic grandness that's always just out of reach) and fall (the entire love affair between Bruno and the Countess is unnecessary, even distracting), the film's saved time and again by its brilliant battle sequences, thrilling aerial photography, and Peppard's top-notch performance. These, along with a very dramatic final scene, make The Blue Max well worth two and a half hours of your time.

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