10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and more...according to Judge Bill Gibron, these are the number of brain cells per minute that this dull derivative Roger Corman war movie managed to kill off during its overlong running time.
Those Daring Young Men in their Flying Machines
When he arrives at his squadron, he is untested but arrogant. As it turns out, he has every right to be. From the very beginning, Baron Manfred Von Richthofen (John Phillip Law, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) is a stellar airplane pilot, racking up more kills and destruction than any other German flyer. Upon the death of his beloved mentor, Major Oswald Boelke (Peter Masterson, The Exorcist), Von Richthofen is put in charge of the troops, much to the chagrin of fellow ace Hermann Goering (Barry Primus, Boxcar Bertha). Over on the British side of things, a nonchalant Canadian named Roy Brown (Don Stroud, The Buddy Holly Story) has just been recruited, and he could care less about fame and fortune. All he wants to do is shoot down the enemy, and he has a hard time abiding by the rules of honor and duty set out by his UK brethren. When a daring raid cripples the German forces, the Allies think they've won. But Von Richthofen will not go down without a fight, and thanks to aircraft magnate Anthony Fokker (Hurd Hatfield, The Picture of Dorian Gray), he has a new tri-plane to use during battle. It looks like the final conflict will be between Von Richthofen and Brown, and to the winner the ultimate victory near the end of World War I.
If you like dogfights and plenty of appealing aerial combat, if you don't mind a lack of ancillary narrative or precise characterization…heck, if all you want out of a war movie is more and more battles, then Roger Corman's Von Richthofen and Brown will definitely be your cup of conflict tea. Featuring John Phillip Law as the bloody Red Baron and Don Stroud as the world's first method flying ace, the man behind such cinematic slop as Gunslinger and The Undead is way out of his artistic league with this WWI drama. Beginning with an action sequence that's supposed to mesmerize us with its unique in-plane POV perspective, and ending with a similar set piece that pits our two title titans against each other (though history would challenge that claim), Corman is out to prove that he can handle spectacle with capability and flair. Unfortunately, he gets it about 3/8ths right. There is nothing really wrong with the many dogfights featured. Sure, they get a little stale after a while, the same old shots of planes in a tailspin and machine guns blaring, substituting for anything remotely new or novel, but since in-flight combat is so rare in films these days, we give the repetitive nature of these moments a pass. Still, in this 96 minute movie, there are at least 70 minutes of cloud to cloud clashing.
What's left behind is characterization. The one-dimensional way in which writing team John William Corrington and Joyce Hopper Corrington handle our two main icons is horrifying. Manfred Von Richthofen comes off as a stuck up snob with little or no grace as a soldier. Instead, he is lost in a series of stoic poses, cleft chin jutting out from his perfectly formed jawline. John Phillip Law may embody the Teutonic traits the Baron claimed, but he's about as believable as a mollusk. When looking cool while pulling the trigger on your aerial weaponry is the best illustration of your performance chops, it's pure matinee mannequin time. On the other end of the problematic spectrum is the moody, misguided work of Don Stroud. Fresh from endless serialized television and roles in other Corman crud like Bloody Mama and biker flicks like Angels Unchained, this intense performer appears to be channeling the rotting corpse of James Dean all throughout his essaying of Canadian flyer Brown. Frankly, Stroud is acting in a totally different movie here. He's projecting himself into Richard Rush's Stunt Man, while the rest of the cast are carrying on like a standard Tinsel Town period piece.
But there is more to Von Richthofen and Brown's problems than mere thespian cross purposes. There are moments in this movie that actually fail to make sense. At one point, Von Richthofen is visited by a local jeweler. The man's job, apparently, is to make little silver trophy cups for the Baron to hold his medals. Their meeting is brief, vague, and utterly pointless. Similarly, Von Richthofen is injured and spends some quiet time at his massive familial estate. There he has a conversation with his father that sounds like a dozen incomplete sentences strung together. Brown also does some baffling things. While traveling the French countryside on an ancient motorcycle (see, all that chopper training in Angels came in handy) he stops off to flirt with a pretty young girl. When it turns out she is missing a limb, he makes a rude comment and leaves her. A little while later, when asked how he likes the local women, he says slyly "with both arms and legs, I guess." Since the non-fight scenes add nothing to our understanding of the war, its importance, the history behind the conflict, or the men who fought it, all we're left with is the stunt work. And since it's nothing more than average, we come away feeling cheated and betrayed. There is probably a legendary tale to be told about Baron Manfred Von Richthofen and the men who finally brought him down, but this Roger retardation is not it.
Originally released under the title The Red Baron, MGM does a decidedly dull job of bringing this film to the digital format. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image (which actually looks more like a 1.66:1 aspect ratio) is dark, muddy, and rather unappealing. The exterior shots and aerial work are wonderful, but once we get indoors, the lighting budget appears to have been cut in half. On the sound side, we are treated to a flat, featureless Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix. Though really nothing more than the standard Mono track channeled through both speakers, the aural elements presented are weak and woefully inadequate for a war film. Even the eventual explosions lack any subwoofer heft. And don't even think about added content. This is a bare bones disc in the most literal of terms—no trailers, no interviews, and no attempt to contextualize the characters at all. There is merely a menu with scene selection options…that's all. Come to think of it, the film is so slight that it doesn't really deserve such supplementing.
One of the highlights of the comic strip Peanuts used to be Snoopy's never ending battles with the Red Baron, the brave beagle riding his Sopwith Camel doghouse into epic confrontations with the notorious flying ace. Who would have thought that such pen and ink depictions would rival Von Richthofen and Brown for believability and entertainment.
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