Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Movies In History: Flyboys, The Red Baron and The Blue Max (and The Great Waldo Pepper).

Sometimes the only purpose a movie serves is to remind you how good an earlier movie actually was.

Drama in the air, biplanes, war, romance. . . how could you go wrong?

Well, apparently you can. At least if Flyboys and The Red Baron are any guide.

Let's start off with a really good film fearing all of this, however.  The Blue Max.

The Blue Max was a 1966 movie featuring George Peppard as Lt. Bruno Stachel, a German commoner who is elevated to officer rank as a pilot during World War One.  It's based on a novel by the same name, which I have not read.  Stachel finds himself elevated out of the trenches, out of the enlisted ranks and into both the infant Luftwaffe and to the company of German nobility, the latter of which he does not mix well with.  Highly competitive and not entirely likeable, Stachel's story is well developed and the film does a nice job of exploring a world that was being killed by World War One.  The title of the film is taken from Stachel's pursuit of the Prussian award for valor, the Pour le Merit, an award that was given to quite a few German aviators during World War One.

The film features a nice collection of aircraft built for the story, which in some ways are as much the stars of the film as the actors. Period aircraft were not available so they built them for the film.  Fortunately, I suppose, aircraft of that period were relatively simple.

This is an excellent film.  In terms of material details, in regards to aircraft, its superb.  It's good also in regard to German uniforms, which were a mix for aviators.  It's one of the few films regarding World War One aircraft that demonstrate how filthy of job it was, given that the engines of the period spewed oil back on the pilots.  A film history buff could pick a few complaints with the use of British small arms for German ground troops, but as that's a secondary aspect of the film, it shouldn't really detract much and it was common at the time.  Otherwise, it's excellent in every way.  It's by far the best modern World War One aviation film every made.

Before moving on to the lesser films, we should mention The Great Waldo Pepper, which is a film in which Robert Redford plays the title role, a barnstormer in the 1920s.  The barnstorming era is romantically remembered, but off hand this is the only film I'm aware of that features it.  Again, the story is a good one, the planes are also the stars, and the material details are excellent.  Concerning those planes, quite a few of them from this 1975 film were made for The Blue Max, so the accuracy of the aircraft shouldn't surprise us, perhaps.

And then there's the others.

Recently I've been posting a lot on the year 1916, so it's only appropriate that both Flyboys and The Red Baron would be on television.  For really lightweight entertainment, I guess their okay, but only barely so.

Flyboys is a 2006 film featuring James Franco in an early role as a pilot joining the French military in a squadron loosely, and I do mean loosely, based on the Lafayette Escadrille.  It's pretty bad.

This is the first film of which I'm aware that CGI was used for the aircraft.  A viewer who is familiar with The Blue Max will be disappointed as the aircraft look fake, at least to the experienced eye.

The story is fake, to the knowledgeable viewer, and more than a little odd.  For example, one of the American pilots in this squadron is portrayed as highly religious and sings Onward Christian Soldier as he flies into battles.  This story takes place in World War One, not World War Two, and therefore there isn't an intelligible religious element to the story.  I.e, the Germans were Christians too and no matter what you think of their cause they weren't being lead by Hitler (indeed, their sovereign, Kaiser Wilhelm, would disdain Hitler in exile).

For some odd reason, in addition, every German fighter in this film is a Fokker Triplane  Weird.  And they're all painted red save for the black one flown by a real baddy.  This contrasts with The Blue Max which correctly shows that German squadrons flew a real mix of aircraft and those aircraft tended to be painted in all sorts of different ways, all within a single squadron.

The only saving grace, really, to the story is the portrayal of a French farm girl by the improbably named French actress Jennifer Decker.  She does a nice job in a story that's otherwise a mess.

Even worse, is the 2008 film The Red Baron, which is currently showing on Netflix.  A German made film, but in English, it's best just flat out skipped.  The basic plot could be summarized as; young boy dreams of flying his whole life (improbable given that aircraft had existed for only eleven years when WWI broke out), becomes flyer, flies in a noble airborne game of chess, falls in love with nurse who exposes him to war, became anti war.


A lot of this strikes a person as sort of an excuse to try to make a film that really romanticizes a German officer who was really deadly at his craft and make him into sort of anti war hero in the process.  Well, Manfred Von Richthoffen wasn't awarded the Blue Max as he was an airborne pacifist.

This makes of this film also seem to have been compelled to take the concept that the war in the air was chivalrous, a somewhat doubtful or at least overdone proposition, a bit further than the bounds of reality will tolerate.  Every modern World War One aviation film does this to some extent, and the proper extent is likely that depicted in The Blue Max, but this one is really over the top in these regards.  Developing a personal relationship, for example, between Manfred Von Richthoffen and Canadian pilot Roy Brown is really a bit much.

So, skip Flyboys and The Red Baron and rent The Blue Max and The Great Waldo Pepper instead.

No comments: