Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Blue Max (1966)

The Blue Max is perhaps the most underrated of all movies dealing with aerial combat in the First World War. In fact this 1966 British production is very underrated in general.

Unusually this movie looks at things from the German side. This is more than a mere novelty approach. Apart from the usefulness of showing us that the stresses of war are the same regardless of which side you’re on the class issue which is at the heart of the plot works more effectively this way, the gulf between the old Prussian nobility who dominated the officer corps in Imperial Germany being even more extreme than in other countries.

Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) is an infantryman who finally, in 1918, gets the chance to serve in the air services as a fighter pilot. This also means promotion. Corporal Stachel is now an officer. Stachel is of relatively humble birth and he soon comes to realise that this will be an issue. The pilots are all officers, and they are drawn more or less exclusively from the upper classes. It’s not that they treat him badly as such. In general they don’t. The difficulty is that they have a set of shared cultural values and ideas about honour, and he does not share those values. His behaviour is misinterpreted simply because his way of approaching life, and more importantly his way of fighting a war, is different.

It is immediately obvious that Stachel is a very good pilot. Very good indeed. No-one doubts his skill or his courage. The question is over his honour. And these are men who take honour very seriously indeed. If Stachel had proved himself to be dishonourable there would have been no problem. They would simply have got rid of him. The big problem is that Stachel’s actions are ambiguous, and could be interpreted either way. The unease of the squadron’s commanding officer Colonel Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler) steadily grows even as Stachel proves himself more and more to be a a very successful fighter pilot.

Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp) is the squadron’s leading ace and his twentieth aerial victory has won him the coveted Pour le Mérite (popularly known as the Blue Max), the highest German decoration for skill and bravery. Stachel is determined to win the Blue Max as well. He sees it as the only way he can truly prove himself.

There is a certain tension between the aristocratic von Klugermann and Stachel, a tension that develops into a fierce rivalry. It is not just that Stachel shows himself to be a formidable rival in the air; they will also become rivals for the affections of the beautiful Countess Kaeti von Klugermann (Ursula Andress), the wife of General Count von Klugermann (James Mason). The General also happens to be Willi’s uncle. The rivalry between the two flyers is the key to the plot, directly or indirectly influencing every major plot point.

The plot might sound conventional and predictable but the way it is worked out is anything about. The movie manages to avoid all the obvious pitfalls. It avoids any kind of obviousness or clumsiness by making the characters complex, and the relationships between them even more complex.

Stachel is an outsider but the screenplay does not make the mistake of making him working class, which would be too obvious. He is middle class, but only just. He might not be as cultured as the other officers but he’s certainly not an uneducated yokel. What matters is that he is outside the upper classes. How far outside doesn’t matter.

Stachel and Willi von Klugermann are rivals but it is a rivalry tempered by a certain mutual respect. Stachel is a worthy and very formidable rival and von Klugermann finds the competition stimulating. He enjoys the competition. He is even amused by Stachel’s temerity in actually daring to pursue von Klugermann’s aunt, and when Stachel succeeds in his pursuit Willi is more irritated at being beaten than actually upset. After all it’s not as if Willi and Kaeti were in love. Their relationship was purely sexual, just another aristocratic amusement. Jeremy Kemp’s superb performance help the film considerably. For all his aristocratic manners and his sophisticated disdain for conventional sexual morality he is much more than a mere stereotype.

Colonel Heidemann strongly disapproves of Stachel but even in this case there is a grudging respect, and Heidemann is too much of a gentleman to condemn a man unless or until he has actual proof that the man has behaved dishonourably. Heidemann is a man who follows a very strict moral code but again the actor involved (in this case Karl Michael Vogler) gives him some depth.

Ursula Andress for once gets not only a good role but a challenging one. The Countess’s actions could easily lead the audience to view her as the scheming femme fatale but Andress makes her human. It’s by far the best performance I’ve ever sen her give.

That James Mason is good is no surprise at all. What is surprising is that even though the General is the least sympathetic of all the characters we understand why he does certain things even when we’re horrified by them.

The key of course is George Peppard’s performance, which has come in for a good deal of  criticism. I’m perplexed by this, but then I’m perplexed by the extent to which this actor is routinely under-appreciated. In this film he faces one of his biggest acting challenges. He has to avoid making Stachel a conventional hero but he also has to avoid making him an antihero. For the movie to work the audience has to continue to care about Stachel’s fate even when he really does cross the line and commit a clearly dishonourable and reprehensible act. Stachel is arrogant but it has to be a different sort of arrogance to von Klugermann’s effortless aristocratic arrogance. He has to be arrogant but without being obnoxious. Stachel’s problem is not that he is generally speaking a bad man, or even a weak man. He simply fails to understand the unwritten rules which are second nature to the other officers. He decides to play by his own rules, but he is going to play to win. The audience has to see his fall from grace as being genuinely tragic, a mistake he cannot undo, and a mistake that can be seen as an understandable response to an implied insult that no German officer (regardless of class) could fail to be provoked by.

Peppard’s problem seems to have been that he was an unfashionable actor. At a time when the exaggerated and somewhat histrionic Method style was all the rage Peppard clearly belonged to a much more understated less-is-more school of acting. If in doubt Peppard would always underplay rather than overplay. In truth he was a fine actor and his performance in this film is subtle but entirely effective. He captures all the nuances of Stachel’s character and he makes him a living breathing human being. There’s not much more an actor can do.

The aerial sequences are stunning and this is a movie that does not stint on the action scenes. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is superb. A lot of money was spent on this film, and it was well spent.

The Blue Max does not take the obvious anti-war stance that you generally expect in films of this sort. This is a movie about old-fashioned virtues like courage and honour, although it explores them with a fair amount of complexity. This movie also avoids obviousness in its treatment of class. Some of the upper class characters behave badly while others display bravery and honour of a very high order. Whether their views are better or worse than Stachel’s isn’t the issue; the issue is that they see things differently.

The Blue Max delivers intelligent and spectacular entertainment. It’s a movie that really needs to be seen on the big screen, or at least on a big widescreen TV. The DVD release is barebones but the transfer is excellent. Very highly recommended.

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