Thursday, 22 February 2018

Is THE BLUE MAX (1966) Imperial Germany's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA?

The story of a morally conflicted, nonconformist WW1 antihero gets the full 1960s epic movie history treatment. But there is not a spec of sand in sight.

You know you are watching a 1960s epic movie when you get a blank screen and several minutes of gorgeous score before the movie has even started (The Overture). John Guillermin's 1962 WW1 air war epic is obviously a 'follow up' to David Lean's  1962 desert WW1 classic , how does it compare?

I am very much appreciating THE GREAT WAR on Youtube right now. It stands out on several levels:
  • Accessible, fun, history teaching that isn't dumbed down
  • It's honest, fair and doesn't necessarily follow accepted opinion
  • It is repeatedly anti-war at a time when a slow drum beat, particularly in the US and Russia, seems to be starting up
and perhaps most of all
  • It reminds us why the internet, and the interaction it creates, is a bonus for humanity and not a hate machine

I was so impressed with this free 200+ episode history show I sent them a list of my favourite WW1 movies. It contained the obvious ones such as Stanley Kubrick's Path's Of Glory (arguably the best Stanley Kubrick film), and not so obvious ones, such as Zeppelin (1971), the almost contemporary, The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) and a strange but fun movie about the war in Africa, starring Roger Moore and Lee Marvin, Shout At The Devil (1976)

The list also included John Guillermin's The Blue Max, prompting me to watch the movie again, for the second time in less than a year. It's an interesting movie for 1966, obviously in the shadow of its major influence, but heavily anticipating much more politically conscious and critical movies to come in subsequent decades.

Set in a tired and increasingly insane Germany in the climatic final year of World War One, the German air force is so desperate for pilots it is recruiting the Middle Class (horror!) straight out of the trenches. New recruit Bruno Stachel is certainly made of different stuff, with a flexible attitude to honour and a fanatical ambition to win the greatest military award, the Pur Le Merite, The Blue Max.

I mentioned the score at the top. This genre of movie throws up the soundtrack as a major highlight, with an opening Overture before the movie has even started, then a special soundtrack portion just for the Interval. You need some great music to carry this kind of thing off and in Lawrence of Arabia you have Maurice Jarre's masterful theme, which may be the best movie music of all time. The Blue Max has a score by Jerry Goldsmith. Personally I'm a huge fan of this composer, his incredibly effective theme to Ridley Scott's original Alien may be the most under-regarded uic soundtrack ever. Goldsmith's music for Blue Max is not one of his very best but does it's job with an air of doomed military funeral grandier.

But let's get the main issue with this movie out of the way early on - George Peppard really isn't any kind of Peter O'Toole. I've never been a fan of this actor. He has a sort of galling smugness that reminds me of a porky James Franciscus. He belonged in tv, and was destined for a semi-comic role n something like the A-team. Many scarred veteran watchers of The A-Team might find it difficult to take George Peppard seriously.
Yeah. I'm right with you.

That said, his character in the movie, Bruno Stachel, is an overly ambitious slimeball with a chip on his shoulder. He's meant to be even more of an anti-hero than O'Tool's Lawrence and, if you are expecting not to overly sympathise with him, Peppard plays this quite well.

Ursula Andress isn't really attempting any acting Olympics but remains Ursula Andress, a 60s movie star of the highest rank. She doesn't have to do a great deal but convinces as an aristocratic Kaiserine 'wife'who is more aware of what is going on in the real world than any of the men.

James Mason seems to excel in playing military Germans, at least for Brits. His character, Count von Klugermann, is a long way from the role as Erwin Rommel that he became famouse for in two movies in the 1950s. Klugermann is a real relic from the world before 1914 (on all sides), a military fanatic who only lives to promote the 'German Officer Corps'. Time he could be spending with Ursula Andress he actually spends playing tabletop war games with someone elses wife. There is no character in Lean's epic like this (Jack Hawkin's General Allenby is probably closest) but there probably should be, for all the magnificence of Lawrence of Arabia there is little discussion of why men are being sent to die and kill in Palestine and Iraq when the real enemy is in France.

The supporting players in Stachel's squadron, such as the Heidemann's and Corporal Rupp, are all sympathetic realistic human beings, and much like the opening sequence in Battle of Britain (1969) you wish the movie had spent more time on their banter.  One thing it does have in common with Battle of Britain is the advanced age of the pilots, who all seem at least one generation older than the boys who actually lived and died in these planes.
The generally woeful Red Baron (2008)at least got that right.

Flying sequences genuinely are epic, and the movie is impressive in its historical accuracy.
The charge into Aqaba is the big action set piece in Lawrence, and The Blue Max has it's own, when Stachel's squadron are sent into action against ground troops to try and stem the beginning of the Hundred Days, the giant Allied counter Offensive which would eventually prompt a cease fire. Previously we've seen the squadron celebrate what the German's hope desperately will be there war winning push, only for it to collapse in exhaustion near Amiens.

Stock footage, props and planes from this movie would be reused in inferior productions (such as Roger Corman's Von Richthofen and Brown (1971) for the next couple of decades.

For the serious aviation nerds, they obviously built one or two 'hero' planes to closely replicate the machines of 1918 and padded these out with lightly dressed up Tiger Moths. The SE5s and the Fokker Triplanes look spot on to me. Apparently Peter Jackson later acquired these for his aero museum. Allegedly he lists the film as one of the top six World War I movies.

Dublin stands in for Imperial Berlin. I've been to both places (though not in 1918) and I was fooled. The rural locations look suspiciously green and lumpy but they are hardly unpleasant to look at. Douglas Slocombe might look familiar in the credits. One of the great British cinematographers, Speilberg chose him to lense the first three initial Indiana Jones films.

In summation David Lean's Law is obviously a  much better movie, and this cash-in, and many others like it (55 Days at Peking, Kartoum) might never even have existed without Lawrence. For all it's merits though Lean's film is a complex biopic about a complex man which really fails to land any wider political point beyond "Don't trust the British and the French,  - even if you are British and French".

The Blue Max, for all it's issues, goes squarely at the class system, the change from chivalrous combat to Total War, and the insanity of the military industrial complex. Despite his glory hunting and insubordination, which often puts his own squadron at risk*, Stachel is quickly seized on as a propaganda asset to boost Germany's collapsing home front. There is a hint of this in Lawrence with the interview with the American reporter but in this movie it is the main plot thread, driving toward a climax of cynical political expediency.

You could make an argument to say none of these characters are bad beyond the main character himself. They are merely trapped in an insane machine grinding their society and the rest of Europe into dust. In this respect you can see the mid-1960s progression from Lawrence, much more of a biopic, made in 1962.

Much of the credit for this can probably be traced to the novel of the same name on which the film was based by Jack D. Hunter. The theme of the fanatical quest to receive a German medal at all costs might seem familiar as it is the central theme of the classic Eastern front WW2 movie Cross of Iron. Cross of Iron is itself apparently based on a a novel of 1955, The Willing Flesh So perhaps Hunters novel, published in 1966, got the inspiration here and swapped one medal and one war for another. I notice James Mason seems to be paying a very similar roles in both both The Blue Max and Cross of Iron.

1966 was still an era for jingoistic war movies, particularly concerning WW2. In picking an unfashionable war, an unfashionable side to that war and an unlikable main character Blue Max bridges the historical epic to the far more anti-war tone of films in the 70s and 80s.

* Stachel is such an idiotic threat to his own fellow pilots he reminds me of Poe Dameron in THE LAST JEDI. 
 The scene I would most like to see in a directors cut of Last Jedi;

 After his pointless and stupid “bombing run”. Poe Dameron marches onto Rebel cruiser and, after wiping out his own Air Force, he mouths off at the leader of the Resistance, General Leia (as per movie)
but instead of smiling Carrie Fisher calls him an insubordinate, incompetent prick and Force strangles him to death (like her father) in front of assorted nice people with purple hair

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