Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Blue Max

The Blue Max (John Guillerman, 1966) Everything soars in this tale of a vainglorious WWI fighter pilot from the (evidently historically inaccurate) planes dog-fighting through the skies, the performance of its star (the usually uni-dimensional George Peppard), the high-flying score by Jerry Goldsmith (one of his best and not even nominated for an Oscar) and the swooping direction of John Guillerman that seems to be caught in the jet-streams of its vehicles and characters.  

Adapted by black-listed writer Ben Barzman from the novel by Jack D. Hunter, it tells the story of a common trench soldier, who sees an opportunity to rise in stature during the war and German society by becoming a flying ace, obsessively seeking the country's highest honor, the blue max (awarded for twenty kills), by daring and deceit. But the filmmakers changed the story from the novel, turning it more into a modern telling of Icarus than the author's original intent.

Hunter wrote a sequel, "The Blood Order," in which the protagonist of "The Blue Max," as Aryan as one could be, finds himself embroiled in the rise of the Nazi Party in the years between world wars.

The film of The Blue Max made any idea of a sequel impossible.

Peppard plays Bruno Stachel, a German soldier fighting in 1916, who sees a squad of planes ripping through British defenses during one horrific battle and decides then and there to join the German Army Air Corps. But he finds it hard to take off with so much resistance.  The aces are all aristocratic, from good families—in fact, Willi Von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp) is the nephew of General Count Von Klugermann (James Mason) (and having an affair with the general's much younger predatory wife, played by Ursula Andress). Stachel's ambitions and duplicitous ways of achieving them rankles the aces and angers his commanding officer (Karl Michael Vogler), who is determined to never see Stachel wins his medal.
"It's a cruel world, Herr Hauptmann..."
But Stachel makes good PR—a commoner among the elite—and the General, to flag waning public acceptance of the war, uses the handsome young pilot as a symbol of Germany's greatness that the people can embrace.
He does his job only too well because one of those embracing is his own wife, Kaeti, who begins an affair with Stachel during a propaganda tour of Berlin, which only emboldens Stachel and increases the rivalry between the general's nephew and him. The two carry on a bitter feud on the ground and in the skies, and when Willi is killed in a competition of who might be the better pilot, Stachel claims the other's kills as his own, and becomes reckless and insubordinate in his missions.  And with the General's support, he can do no wrong.
Stachel's first kill and his satisfied smile
The story is a great little condemnation of martial glory after years of heroics in post-WWII war films that paint a more rosy picture of the nihilism of war, and paper it over with honor and patriotism and ideals that might seem attractive to new recruits. Certainly, for Stachel, it is better to be high in the clouds, raining death on the ground than being stuck in the mud in the trenches. And his motivations are self-serving and covetous. He is the new face of war for the 20th Century, hiding behind machines and industrialization, in the last vestiges of the personal combatant. There is no chivalry in his actions (which infuriates the other aces, still clinging to romantic notions of war and themselves as oil-soaked knights) and his motivations are his own. He is not a fighting noble man as they think themselves. He is a sociopath for whom killing is easy and the ladder to his ambition.

What he doesn't understand in his youth and his avarice, that he is merely a cog in a much bigger war machine.

With that cynicism being the heart of the story, Guillerman's direction provides the fluorish.  The aerial photography is amazing, yes. But, even on the ground Guillerman (and his cinematographer Douglas Slocombe) take a romantic's view of the proceedings, burnishing the settings, filming at eccentric angles, and moving, making the camera heave and swoop in places that are sometimes thrilling—I'm thinking of the rushing scan along the crowd during the last scene's air acrobatics, in sharp contrast to the embittered drama going on indoors. The shot choices are not safe, not staid, and contain a certain pictorial power that might give a last salute to the legends while simultaneously shooting them down.
And, as usual for the composer, Jerry Goldsmith's score provides the missing element of what the visuals can't convey—the soaring exhilaration of flight, and Stachel's over-arching ambition.  Yes, the actions we're seeing are horrible, but Goldsmith makes them thrilling with heraldic trumpets, soaring, sometimes shimmering strings, military cadences, and (as was his habit of using unusual instrumentation) even a keening wind machine to add an element of pace and danger.  The music conveys something that nothing else does—it gets into Stachel's head and perversely convinces us of why he does what he does.  It is his own version of heroism...and damned fun when things are going his way. But, like the country and cause he's ostensibly fighting for, it's doomed to failure.  

It just doesn't know it yet.
There will be no sequel...

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