Classic Film Review: Aerial Combat the Analog Way — “The Blue Max” (1966)

In a couple of days, I finally have a preview screening of “Top Gun: Maverick” that I can get to. And even though I expect to be dazzled by the aerial epic built around Tom Cruise, known for wanting to do enough of his own stunts and an insistence on “authenticity,” I dare say there will be digital effects involving jet fighters in it.

It seems like a good time to revisit one of the films I regard as the gold standard for “modern” recreations of air to air combat, 1966’s “The Blue Max.”

Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels” (1930) went for an unheard of level of silent (then reshot/dubbed with sound) WWI authenticity and even 1976’s “Aces High” with Malcolm McDowell did a decent job of showing planes and pilots the analog way — with genuine (modified) aircraft doing actual stunt-flying.

Most recent films depicting WWI or WWII air-to-air combat have gone the way of “Red Tails” or “Flyboys” — CGI aircraft and air battles. You can always tell the difference. The new Netflix thriller “The Bombardment” is a good example of that. The “Mosquito Squadron” reality of the ’60s is sorely missed there.

Daryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox in the post-“Cleopatra” 1960s, gambled the studio’s fortunes on epics that had World War as their backdrop — “The Longest Day,” with even the musical that saved the studio, “The Sound of Music,” depicting the Nazi menace.

But an epic about an ambitious German fighter ace from the working class shooting down Brits for glory? There’s a hint of madness about greenlighting “The Blue Max,” which was epic in scale and in length, but not a winner at the box office.

Built around George Peppard, filmed in Ireland by director John Guillermin and packed with real planes and real stunts, and the usual rear-projection trickery that put Peppard, co-stars Jeremy Kemp and Karl Michael Vogler in the cockpit, forever “cocking” their synchronized machine guns, it’s still jaw-dropping to look at.

Guillmermin would

Guillermin would show such a knack for epics on this film that they came to define his later career — “The Towering Inferno,” “Death on the Nile” (no digital rivercraft for JG’s version), the remake of “King Kong” that made Jessica Lange a star.

A lot of writers had a hand in the script of Jack Hunter’s novel, which concerns the cynical striving of former infantryman and hotel clerk’s son Bruno Stachel (Peppard) to show up the noble “officer class” of pilots and the imperious, snobby German general staff that urged war, lost the war and then blamed civilian authorities for their humiliation, setting the stage for Hitler’s rise and World War II.

Bruno’s ultimate goal? He wants to shoot down enough Allied planes to earn the “Pour le Mérite,” an iron cross in blue called “The Blue Max.”

“A pretty medal, The Blue Max.”

“It’s the only one worth having. People respect it.”

“The medal or the man?”

Most World War I combat films are burdened with an after-the-fact cynicism about the pointlessness of it all, the epic slaughter and the fatalism characters carry in recognizing their needless sacrifice. That’s especially evident in “The Blue Max,” one of those hindsight epics in which almost every character sees the end (the film is set in the last two years of the war) and that they’re on the losing side.

James Mason plays the count and general who keeps the faith about his own class setting an example for their inferiors, even as he exploits Bruno for propaganda purposes. The pan-European cast includes the craggy-faced Brit Kemp as a war weary fellow pilot who “tests” Bruno even as he tries to befriend the friendless wannabe Bruce, Anton Diffring, who played German officers in what seem like scores of films, and Vogler, the handsome German leading man trotted out to play “sensitive” and noble supporting cast officers like the squadron commander here and Erwin Rommel in “Patton.”

There’s a sidebar love/sex story, with Bruno’s ultimate desecration of his “superiors” coming from his bedding of a countess and officer’s wife (Ursula Andress).

Peppard never had the big screen career he might have. But in roles like the chancer Bruno or Truman Capote’s alter ego in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” he mastered the cynic who hides his cards, keeps his secrets and judges all around him with scathing looks and stinging one-liners.

“To kill a man, then make a ritual out of saluting him – that’s hypocrisy. They kill me, I don’t want anyone to salute.”

“The Blue Max” feels as bloated as any epic of that era of “give them something grander, more star-studded and longer than TV” Hollywood. It was something of a chore to sit through for the umpteenth time to review it. Most every scene that isn’t airborne feels stodgy and bloated. But whenever I channel surf past it, with its impressive if brief scenes set in the trenches and convincing combat milieu, the aerial footage pulls me right in.

Chase planes and a glider with a camera followed modern-engined replicas of the Fokkers and Pfalzes seen here, darting under bridges and around Medieval ruins, mixing it up in the clouds. It’s still dazzling enough to be worth the effort it took, back then, to make aerial combat look realistic and cinematic.

Let’s hope Tom Cruise strong-armed director Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”) into similar efforts, at much higher speeds, to give us an equally convincing “Maverick.”

Rating: “Approved,” violence, nudity

Cast: George Peppard, Ursula Andress, Jeremy Kemp, Karl Michael Vogler, Anton Diffring and James Mason

Credits: Directed by John Guillermin, scripted by Gerald Hanley, Jack Seddon and David Pursall, based on the Jack Hunter novel. A Twentieth Century Fox film streaming on Netflix, Tubi, Amazon and elsewhere

Running time: 2:36

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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