• Blue Max, The

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: February 21st, 2014.
    Director: John Guillermin
    Cast: James Mason, George Peppard, Ursula Andress, Karl-Michael Vogler, Carl Schell, Anton Diffring
    Year: 1966
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    "You know, there's something of the cobra in you. I'll have to watch you."

    One of a small handful of truly important WWI films 1966's THE BLUE MAX also remains a distinct anomaly in many respects. This is a film about air combat taking place during a war best remembered for the death by crawling inches of ground trench warfare. It also lacks a traditional hero - George Peppard's Lt. Bruno Stachel doesn't even qualify as an antihero. He's vain, grasping, petty and possessed of an overweening arrogance. He's also a striver in the worst sense of the word. THE BLUE MAX also doesn't even manage the cover of telling the story from the side of the "good guys". This is a story about Germans - told from the perspective of Germans - populated overwhelmingly with machinating and cold individuals.

    But while it lacks the moral certitude of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (the greatest WWI film) THE BLUE MAX remains both a fascinating and engrossing film with flying sequences that still draw gasps today.

    Lt. Bruno Stachel is a grunt risen from the ranks of the meat grinder production line known as the German infantry. We first see him during a brief ground assault showcasing the brutalities of trench warfare as he tosses an almost full bottle of schnapps to some uniformed wretches. It's one of the kindest things Bruno will do in the next two and a half hours. Stachel is the son of a hotelier. Working class to the bone he has nevertheless managed to finagle his way into the flying core. Germany needs pilots and Stachel has shown natural ability. Now posted to a squadron populated by the sons of the elite (the most common German pilots in this war were from the ranks of the aristocratic class) he's automatically regarded with a mix of bemusement and disdain by his comrades. The greatest fighter ace of the war was titled royalty after all - the Baron Von Richthofen. The Red Baron.

    But this is not the tale of the good hearted working class boy who shows his snooty peers the error of their ways. It is a story about predators. The ones from the bottom that ascend through Machiavellian means and the ones on the top who are sometimes impeded by the half-assed ethics they cloak their arrogance in. Stachel's chief rival is Jeremy Kemp's brilliant pilot Willi Von Klugermann. Willi has won Germany's highest military flying award - the Blue Max - given for 20 confirmed kills of enemy aircraft. Stachel is obsessed with winning this award and will do anything to get it including lie and cheat. Willi also represents everything that Stachel resents. He's upper class and charming but haughty and prone to treating Stachel like an amusing upstart. When these two clash over the same woman (Ursula Andress's Countess Kaeti von Klugermann) matters will come to a head.

    Despite the polyglot of accents on display and the clumsy romantic subplot that feels shoehorned in, the film succeeds based on the four performances that anchor it. George Peppard as the cocky working class fighter ace with neither morals nor honor is outstanding and matched every inch by Jeremy Kemp's aristocratic rival ace. James Mason shines as ruthless superior officer General Count Von Klugermann who has a keen eye for exploitative propaganda and the final piece is Karl Michael Vogler's thoroughly decent old school squadron leader Colonel Otto Heidemann. German born Anton Diffring provides excellent support as Mason's assistant and the film features stunning aerial photography. Indeed the flying sequences are truly stunning. The weakest link is Andress who though adequately dubbed simply was never much of an actress. The fact that her character is paired off with Mason (the two characters are married but in a barely concealed "open" marriage) allows him to carry her in their scenes together but her chemistry with Peppard is weak. Indeed, Kaeti has far stronger sexual heat with her other dalliance - the droll Willi.

    What makes THE BLUE MAX truly work is its scorpions under glass aspect. With barely any characters to root for the drama works as an experience in watching often decadent predators at play. As film historian Julie Kirgo astutely notes on the film's excellent audio commentary this a film centered around proto-Nazis. Barely twenty years later many of the survivors of Germany's first attempt at world domination would be back for a more sustained and brutal effort. It is all there. The arrogance. The pomp and the uniforms. The carefully disseminated propaganda. The utter lack of morals. When questioned about the ethics of shooting a possibly unarmed man by Heidemann, Mason's general curtly replies "We fight to win." Indeed.

    A quick note on the flying sequences in the film: THE BLUE MAX remains today a firm favorite of actual pilots due to its stunning aerial photography and authentic use of period aircraft. The dogfights are both breathtaking and cruelly beautiful. Director John Guillermin's choice to rely mostly on the sound of engines running and machine guns clattering during the air battles was an astute one as well. It gives these scenes true verisimilitude. Jerry Goldsmith's score was truncated quite severely for the film but what remains is unusually strong with a nice mix of bombast and subtlety.


    As far as Twilight Time's 2.36:1. framed AVC encoded 1080p transfer goes here there really isn't much to say. This is a STUNNING reference quality piece of work. As film historian Nick Redman notes on the film's included audio commentary this is a "wet" transfer so freshly done it has barely had time to dry. Color palette is gorgeous here. Blue skies and muddy earth look startlingly natural. George Peppard's eyes gleam. The fabric on the uniforms is visible to the stitches. Black levels are deep and true. Digital manipulation of any kind is nonexistent. Occasional softness makes an appearance but it it is true to the source elements and film grain is healthy and organic. Fox have provided Twilight Time with a completely top grade transfer.

    Audio is provided by a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that was derived from the film's original four track mag soundtrack. This is a careful repurposing, however, and devoid of obvious multichannel gimmicks. Fidelity and clarity are terrific and the fx quite impressive. Machine guns and prop engines have the ring of authenticity. LFE action is impressive. The sound field is also well balanced - dialog is clear and focused.

    Twilight Time has always been a film score centric label and the prime extra here is Jerry Goldsmith's complete score. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. presentation is lovely and restores the 30+ minutes that were cut from the film. Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman also sit for an engrossing audio commentary that includes excised pieces of Goldsmith's score. It is a great chat filled with astute observations about the film, the cast and the music. The participants are also clearly friends and have terrific chemistry together. Finally the theatrical trailer is presented in 480p.

    The Final Word:

    While it has its minor flaws I believe THE BLUE MAX is both a fine film and a fascinating document of a war never given its proper due by the cinema. Engrossing and often visually breathtaking THE BLUE MAX is worthy of a serious reappraisal. Twilight Time's gorgeous Blu-ray comes very highly recommended.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!