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Our review of The Blue Max, published May 20th, 2003, is also available.
Take to the skies!
German solider Bruno Stachel (George Peppard, The A-Team) is eager to make his way up the military ranks. After rolling into a trench while dodging gunfire on the battlefield, Bruno looks up to see a biplane overhead. It's then and there at Bruno decides he wants to become part of the German aerial squad, an elite group of dogfighters filled with aristocrats and wealthy soldiers. Bruno has a focused goal which is to achieve "Blue Max" medal status, but this journey is fraught with commanding officers, including Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines), who don't see Bruno as prized fighter pilot material. Championed by General Count von Klugermann (James Mason, North by Northwest) and hoping to be seen as a worthy part of the German air force, Bruno faces an uphill battle to attain the coveted "Blue Max."
I'm not going to pretend to be some kind of World War I film scholar. The fact is, most of my knowledge of that particular historical war comes from either A.) public school (and those facts and figures long since said bye-bye with the passage of time) and B.) Hollywood movies. As I sit here, I honestly can't think of many WWI movies that I can easily recall to mind except for Lawrence of Arabia and Flyboys (which are two very different war movies). Looking online—and as time marches on—studios seem less inclined to roll the dice and make more movies about the first World War.
The Blue Max was one of the more popular WWI films of the early 1960s. Based on the 1964 book of the same name by author Jack Hunter, the film became a solid box office hit, if not propelling star George Peppard into the Hollywood stratosphere. Much of the film's success was due to the aerial stunt work by pilots like Charles Boddington and Derek Piggott. When it came to daring acrobatics in the sky, both men certainly knew their stuff. Even for a film over half a centry old, The Blue Max is striking in its execution of what it was like to be flying around the skies in the 1920s.
Truth be told, I wasn't riveted by The Blue Max. In fact, I was a bit bored during its rather lengthy runtime (almost two and a half hours). Director John Guillermin's (1976's King Kong remake) guiding hand is solid but the story never held my attention the way other war films have in the past. While it features some rather riveting fighter plane sequences (truly awe-inspiring considering the period), the human drama on the ground felt stodgy and rather uninvolved. Part of the problem is that George Peppard gives a rather detached performance as Bruno Stachel; Peppard's all-American good looks almost work against him during the film. Much of the dialogue Peppard is given feels stilted, although that may also be in the way Peppard delivers his lines. Either way, Peppard's performance comes off as one note and cold (which may be the point considering how tunnel versioned the character is about earning the Blue Max medal). The rest of the cast can't really be faulted for their performances; the always welcome presence of steely-eyed James Mason as General Count von Kulgermann gives the film a bit of a boost. Mason is one of those rare actors that is able to hold your attention no matter what role he played, and his coolly stiff von Klugermann is no exception. Bond girl Ursula Andress (Dr. No) plays a general's wife carrying a heavy secret, but she mostly comes off as eye-candy.
Not surprisingly, the best elements to be found in The Blue Max are the aerial dogfights and stunt work by the brave (and sometimes foolish) pilots. In short, the action in this film is often stunning. While there are moments where it's clear that the actors are behind a green screen of some sorts (especially whenever Peppard is in the cockpit), the majority of the airplane sequences are amazing to watch. It makes it all the more disappointing then that the human element of the screenplay just didn't work for me. The Blue Max soars when it's in the air, but falters whenever it deals with the drama on the ground.
Twilight Time's The Blue Max (Blu-ray) is presented in great looking 2.35:1/1080p HD transfer that highlights the daring stunt flying perfectly. As far as I can tell, the print is in fantastic shape without any defects to be spotted. Colors are good (if a little under saturated, which was most likely an artistic choice, not the fault of the image). The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio in English. This is an above average audio mix for a film that is now over fifty years old. There are plenty of surround effects throughout this mix, and while it may not be as impressive as the latest Transformers DTS mix, this is still very good. Also included are English SDH subtitles for the hearing impaired.
Bonus features include a commentary by Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman; an isolated audio track of Jerry Goldsmith's film score; and the film's theatrical trailer.
I didn't connect to The Blue Max. Those who grew up with this movie may feel much differently, and if you're a World War I aficionado, this may be high on your favorites list. I certainly commend Twilight Time for releasing this film on Blu-ray, but considering it's a limited run of only 3,000 units, if you're interested you better pick it up ASAP.
Works as an action movie, but fails as a drama.
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