The dazzling flying sequences in this movie are worth the price of admission all by themselves. This is a good thing because the story is nothing to write home about. Much like its contemporaries, Grand Prix and The Battle of Britain, The Blue Max presents a somewhat shallow, sudsy story set against a beautifully photographed backdrop of aerial combat in World War I. You’ll remember this movie for those scenes (and scenes of Ursula Andress barely wearing a towel) long after you’ve forgotten what the whole thing was all about.
In 1916, Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) is a corporal in the German army, tired of dodging machine gun bullets and living in the trenches, watching the aircraft battling above with an envious eye. Two years later, he’s a replacement pilot, assigned to a Jasta (fighter squadron) under the command of Captain Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler). Their star ace is Willi von Klugerman (Jeremy Kemp), an aristocratic playboy, whose uncle, General Count von Klugerman (James Mason), is Heidemann’s superior.
An infantry man from a middle class family, Bruno is an outsider among his more privileged comrades. This makes him determined to prove himself and that means racking up confirmed kills. When his first kill is not counted, Bruno forces a British scout plane to fly over his squadron’s aerodrome and then cold-bloodedly shoots it down in full view of his squadron mates. His ruthlessness appalls Heidemann, who still believes that the air war is more chivalrous than the brutish war on the ground, but impresses the more pragmatic Count von Klugerman, who sees propaganda value in this common foot soldier rising to be a fighter pilot, especially with the tide of war turning against Germany.
Bruno’s ruthless ambition sparks a tense but friendly rivalry with Willi, both for kills in the air and for the affections of Willi’s aunt by marriage, the Count’s much-younger wife, Kaeti (Andress). The general doesn’t seem to notice or mind his wife’s efforts to, ahem, improve the morale of the squadron, one pilot at a time.
When he is wounded saving the life of Manfred von Richthofen (Carl Schell), Germany’s top fighter ace, Bruno’s propaganda value increases dramatically, but he is not interested in posing for pictures. He is focused on gaining his twentieth kill, which would earn him Germany’s highest honor, the Pour le Mérite, commonly known as the Blue Max. The lengths that he is willing to go to that end, however, begin to make him a liability to Count von Klugerman.
Based very loosely on a novel by Jack Hunter, the film emphasizes the class conflict far more than the book does, probably playing the anti-authoritarian climate of the 1960s. The real problem with the movie, however, is that the two actors at the center of the story, Peppard and Andress, are really not up to the demands of their respective roles. Fortunately, they are surrounded by some able and solid supporting performances, especially by Kemp and Mason.
Of course, I don’t think that Ursula Andress was hired for her acting chops. She seems completely out of place in a film set in 1918, looking for all the world like she stepped out of a costume party on the set of a James Bond movie. I doubt too many male moviegoers complained during a steamy bedroom scene that must have tested the limits of censorship in those days before MPAA ratings.
Director John Guillerman would go on to helm The Towering Inferno and the misbegotten first remake of King Kong, so we know he is comfortable with technically demanding spectacle, but I don’t know if he could have done anything to compensate for the film’s miscast stars and weak central story. Whatever its failings as drama, the movie does not fail to thrill during its beautifully photographed flying scenes, which alone make the film worth recommending. Look on the bright side, it’s not nearly as bad as last year’s Flyboys.