Maybe we've seen this movie before…
In 2001, another movie about World War II was launched into theaters. In this case, the plot revolved around two best friends who happened to be fighter pilots who also end up falling in love with the same girl. If you're thinking I just described the plot for the shallow, Michael Bay 'splosion-fest Pearl Harbor, well, you'd be correct. But the observant reader will probably have noticed by the title at the top of this page that this review is about Dark Blue World, Jan Sverak's emotionally charged follow up to his Oscar-winning film Kolya. Columbia TriStar has put together an impressive special edition for this hidden gem.
Facts of the Case
In 1939, Hitler's Germany ran roughshod over most of Europe while swearing to
other nations in Europe that they weren't a threat. When Germany invaded
Czechoslovakia a couple of things happened:
The surviving Czech pilots who returned to their homeland at the end of the war were rewarded by the occupying Soviet forces with a roof over their heads, three square meals a day, and frequent beatings in a hard labor camp. The Soviets, it turned out due to their paranoia, were afraid that these pilots would take up the fight for freedom against them. Go figure.
The story of Dark Blue World picks up with former pilot Franta Slama (Ondrej Vetchy, Kolya) stuck in a labor camp and contracting pneumonia. As he's being treated by a doctor who also happens to formerly be a member of the SS (deftly played by the unfortunately named Hans-Jorg Assmann), there's a lot that isn't right with Franta's world. While convalescing from his illness, Franta recounts the story of his tour of duty during the war. It all begins with Franta training Czech pilots in rickety planes would never have stood up to German Messerschmitts, his love affair with the beautiful Hanicka (Lynda Rybova), and finally the occupation by German forces. Franta and his best pilot Karel (Krystof Hadek) leave their homes behind and make their way to England, where they're joined by a number of other Czech pilots to be indentured into the RAF. Their first test, however, is the necessity to learn English; something the hotheaded Karel could care less about, especially when his family's fate is in doubt. Cooler heads prevail when Franta steps in as a father figure, and the slyly womanizing Machaty (Oldrich Kaiser) teaches Karel to use his lack of English as a way to woo women. After some flight training on bicycles (something you need to see to believe), the discouraged Czechs are finally called into action, but their first taste of combat ends in a bit of a disaster as they're taken by surprise and two planes are lost. The next mission out doesn't fare all that much better when Franta and Karel shoot down a German bomber while on patrol, but in turn Karel gets shot down and is presumed dead.
Karel makes his way to safety and into the arms of the kind-hearted Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), a woman whose husband has been lost at sea for a year and who's also running a shelter so London children can escape the incessant bombing. Karel is immediately smitten with Susan, and in a moment of weakness she succumbs to his charms. When Karel insists that he introduce Franta to Susan, it's Susan who in turn becomes smitten with Franta, and the dreaded lover's triangle is completed. Can a bond of friendship in wartime survive under these conditions?
In glancing over the plot synopsis, I suddenly realized that this is a story that has been told before and will probably be told again and again. It's a pretty basic formula to use because it's easy for the writer. But Dark Blue World is anything but easy or commonplace. Some war movies only hint at the comradeship between the various soldiers, but Dark Blue World grounds its premise in comradeship. Each casualty, each victory, each set back and each triumph is felt by the audience thanks to the quality of the script and the terrific acting by the cast. This makes it difficult on where to begin in deconstructing Dark Blue World.
At its center, Dark Blue World is a war movie, and a compelling one at that. The scenes involving aerial combat are some of the best I can remember seeing in any film. Instead of taking the obvious route of filming the pilots against a blue screen and creating everything else with computer generated effects, Sverak realized early on that the dogfights wouldn't look real enough and the audience would be distracted by what would be nothing more than a video game. Great care was taken to film actual Spitfires in flight, allowing the crew to replicate the unique sound and movement of these planes in post-production. On top of that, old footage of planes the crew couldn't find (like the German Messerschmitts) was spliced, cleaned up, and inserted into Dark Blue World. On top of this, other final elements were and filmed separately and then digitally added to the shot to replicate tracer fire, smoke, and shell casings falling from the machine guns. The final results are impressive and are nothing short of perfect. These effects concisely illustrate how CG effects should be used to enhance a story instead of becoming the story, a skill that many Hollywood producers *cough* Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer *cough* have yet to master much less realize.
The passage of World War II itself is depicted through the narration of Franta. As the movie unfolds he eventually explains that flying missions to shoot down German bombers headed towards London eventually gave way to flying attack missions into France and then finally escorting American B-52s over Germany itself. With some war movies time seems to flow with little consequence, and while time seems to pass quickly in Dark Blue World, you never get the sense that the story has been lost in the details. The characters mature as they become hardened by the war, and continue to do so up until the moments of closure that abound at the prison camp. This includes a subplot surrounding Machaty, who's also been imprisoned and beaten by his Soviet captors. Sverak never turns warfare into a glamorous undertaking, as each victory seems to be at a cost. Even the final victory over the Germans takes a human toll when Franta returns home and finds that the world he knew changed during his absence. Without resorting to cheap tricks like nostalgia and weepy violin strings, Sverak manages to pull off an emotional train wreck for the audience to be a part of. (For the record I didn't cry, but it was close.)
Another important factor of a war movie is the interaction between the various soldiers, and I can safely say that Dark Blue World doesn't disappoint. At first the Czech recruits are looked upon as unneeded help and the language barrier is no help at all. This is compounded by early bungles once the Czechs are allowed in the air. After a British bomber on its last legs is safely escorted back to the RAF airfield (and a kiss is promised to Machaty), the drunken celebration between the two units begins. The bond between Karel and Franta is the most important, and when it gets fractured by their respective feelings for Susan, it takes an emotional toll on the rest of the squadron. Ultimately, though, the moral center of war movies revolves around loyalty, and Dark Blue World excels at portraying the loyalty each of the characters share with each other. Sverak also manages to turn this theme upside down when depicting the relationship between Doctor Blaschke formerly of the SS and his patients. Like Franta, Blaschke is being held by the Soviets because he sided with Germany during the war and continues to serve as a doctor. Dark Blue World is superlative at bringing out the tiniest details that denote each relationship, and the cultural rift that unravels and eventually strengthens the bond between Blaschke and Franta is one of the more fascinating aspects of this film.
Finally, we come to the love story that causes the real conflict in Dark Blue World. The comparisons to the love story of Pearl Harbor are easy to see, just substitute Vetchy, Hadek, and Fitzgerald with Affleck, Hartnett, and Beckinsdale. But this is where Dark Blue World truly shines where Pearl Harbor fell apart like David Caruso's career. The love story in this film feels genuine in an old-days-of-Hollywood kind of way. Maybe it won't instantly conjure up memories of Bogart and Bergman, but I don't necessarily think it was meant to. There's an identifiable chemistry between Vetchy and Fitzgerald on screen that resonates throughout the film, and there's never a time when I thought, "Gee, I don't buy it."
I've mentioned a number of people from the cast, all of who gave extraordinary performances, but I should also give a quick nod to David Novotny. According to the supplementary material Novotny is actually a comedian who gives a terrific supporting performance as the tentative Bedrich Mrtvy. You can see the fear in his eyes. Great work there.
Speaking of supplementary material, Columbia TriStar has rolled out a terrific treatment of Dark Blue World. They start with an audio commentary featuring Jan Sverak and his producer Eric Abraham (who also produced Kolya). Don't worry; they speak terrific English even though they stumble over a few words. They also string together a terrific commentary track that runs from how Dark Blue World came into being (immediately following the success of Kolya) to the historical events the film is based on, all the way to the technical aspects. These two gentlemen also marvel at how well the aerial footage turned out, and I can't say that I blame them. The commentary also helped me pick out some of the finer details of the film, such as during the attack on a train in France when Franta and Karel allow the French engineer and fireman to escape the train (after which they surrendered) before the strafing run begins. If you need to marvel at the aerial footage (and only the aerial footage), then you'll be happy to know that much of it has been spliced together in a montage and scored with the film's soundtrack. There's much to love with this piece. Columbia TriStar has also included a pretty good "making of" documentary that goes well beyond the standard fluff you get with most other special editions. I should warn you that it's mostly subtitled, but this didn't make much of a difference to me. Moving along there's a "Making of Visual Effects" piece that serves as a special effects deconstruction that fully demonstrates some of the wizardry that created the electrifying aerial combat. If you're a techie of any sort you'll probably enjoy this, and my only complaint is that they should have included some sound (any sound!) with this feature. The special features are rounded out with the standard theatrical trailer and a photo montage.
And the transfer for Dark Blue World? Pristine. Columbia TriStar has pulled out all the stops to bring the theatrical experience to your home. The colors are all deep with no noticeable graininess, pixels, artifacts, or edge enhancement. Woo hoo! On top of that, the sound mix properly utilizes all channels and puts you right into the middle of a shooting war.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is absolutely nothing to dislike about Dark Blue World. I think the French film studios just surrendered.
Dark Blue World is everything that Pearl Harbor inspired to be and then some. This film is a rare blend of comedy, pathos, heroism, and tragedy with a full range of emotions in between those four points. Or maybe it's just refreshing to see a World War II yarn told from the perspective of another country for once. Thankfully Dark Blue World is more than window dressing. If you can stand the subtitles (and even if you can't) get out and rent this movie.
In this case, I find Michael Bay innocent of any wrongdoing, which is good because he thankfully had nothing to do with Dark Blue World. The cast and crew of Dark Blue World are not guilty on the merits of creating one of the better war movies seen in recent years. Columbia TriStar is not guilty due to the excellent special edition they've provided.
I have it on pretty good authority that because of this review France has just surrendered.
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Scales of Justice
• Director and Producer Audio Commentary
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