Over the years I tried several times, and failed, to watch John Guillermin’s The Blue Max (1966), the big-scale adaptation of Jack D. Hunter’s novel about German fighter pilots during World War I. Neither the widescreen laserdisc nor the later DVD version quite worked for me; I think I got through about the first half-hour in each format.
But Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray edition is something else entirely. The transfer is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. On big screen TV’s, The Blue Max really comes to life, with some of the most spectacular aerial photography ever done, and in this CGI-dominated movie world we live in now, is more impressive than ever.
The superb video transfer is matched by an equally impressive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that does particularly good service to Jerry Goldsmith’s score, one of his best-ever, while Twilight Time offers an invaluable supplement by including not only Goldsmith’s score on an isolated track, but also music recorded but cut from the film, as well as alternate cues. It’s like getting both a great Blu-ray of the movie and a super-deluxe soundtrack CD all in one.
In 1918, German trenches Cpl. Bruno Stachel (George Peppard; “stachel” is German for “sting”) joins the German Army Air Service, he from a working class background in a squadron dominated by flyers with aristocratic bearing.
Stachel becomes obsessed with proving himself an equal ranking with the best flyers by earning Germany’s highest military decoration, the Pour le Mérite, or “Blue Max,” awarded to those fighter pilots who’ve shot down 20 or more enemy aircraft.
The focus of Stachel’s blind ambition is rival elite pilot Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp). Meanwhile, Stachel’s commanding officer, Hauptmann Otto Heidermann (Karl Michael Vogler) is increasingly disturbed by Stachel’s ruthlessness and utter lack of German chivalry. In one early scene, Stachel shoots down a British S.E.5 but because there are no witnesses to the downing, Statchel is denied credit for this “kill.” Undeterred, Stachel searches the French countryside in the pouring rain in search of the wrecked aircraft, showing no sympathy for its dead pilot and zero interest in helping Germany win the war.
Later, he incapacitates an Allied two-man observation plane, shooting the rear gunner and motioning to the pilot to follow him back to the German airfield. However, moments before landing the gunner revives and reaches for his machine gun, forcing Stachel to shoot the plane down. Based on past behavior, Stachel’s fellow pilots wrongly assume he shot the plane down in cold blood for all to see and the self-obsessed Stachel becomes a pariah within his own squadron.
However, Stachel’s ruthlessness attracts the attention of General Count von Klugermann (James Mason), Willi’s uncle. With Germany losing the war, he sees Stachel as a valuable propaganda tool in a last push for German victory. The General’s wife, Kaeti (Ursula Andress) has secretly been having an affair with Willi while Stachel, obsessed with matching the aristocrat off the battlefield as well as on, embarks on an affair with Kaeti as well.
The $5 million production is justly famous for its flying sequences, directed by Anthony Squire in the skies over Ireland. The filmmakers took great pains to recreate the period aircraft and wartime air combat as accurately as possible, and to this day aviation buffs consider The Blue Max one of the finest films of its type. Further, the aerial scenes are always photographed in interesting, very cinematic ways. One beautifully shot scene near the end of the picture has the camera dollying in a semi-circle about waist-high, peering through the large crowds that have come to watch a test flight, the experimental plane seen taking off the distance beyond. Other footage shot from a camera plane is equally impressive, and the stunt flying is about par with the incredible flying scenes in Wings (1927) and Hell’s Angels (1930), The Blue Max’s only serious rivals.
Dramatically, the movie works better in terms of Willi’s and Heidermann’s contrastingly amused and appalled reactions to Stachel, and von Klugermann’s manipulation of same, rather than as a portrait of Stachel himself. As a character he’s too single-minded and cold-blooded to be anything more than merely reprehensible, though the movie deserves points for its atypical absence of romanticism, the usual treatment in movies about fearless flyers. No actor could have made the character as written in any way sympathetic, and though George Peppard is fairly good in the role, a Terence Stamp/Richard Harris type undoubtedly could have provided more subtle shading. On the other hand, Peppard actually did some of his own flying in the film, adding to the verisimilitude of those scenes.
The rest of the cast, however, is outstanding, particularly the always excellent James Mason, whose subtle, aristocratic ruthlessness, a kind of proto-Nazi, makes an interesting contrast to Stachel’s bludgeoning one. Karl Michael Vogler, who’d go on to play Erwin Rommel in Patton (1970), a role essayed by Mason in two films himself, is also very good. But it’s Mason’s performance, not Peppard, who completely dominates the film’s climax.
Swiss-German Andress has the right voice (reportedly dubbed though it sounds like her) and bearing though also comes off as anachronistically ‘60s as Countess Kaeti (pronounced “Katie”) though, as she often was during this period, indescribably voluptuously sexy. Startlingly for a Hollywood feature released in the summer of 1966, Andress fleetingly appears nude several times. The pre-MPAA ratings system film nonetheless received a Production Code seal and released without cuts.
The Blue Max was among the last official CinemaScope releases. The aforementioned laserdisc and DVD versions were simply inadequate, but Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray, especially when seen on big screen TVs and via projection systems, looks outstanding from start to finish. Except for the blue skies and lush green Irish countryside, the rest of the film is by design muted and dark. This and the widescreen compositions tested the limits of standard-def but here everything simply looks and sounds great. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio likewise adds immeasurably to the presentation. An Intermission break and entr’acte are also included. Optional English subtitles are included, and this limited edition is restricted to 3,000 units.
Extras include a trailer, and a music-centric audio commentary track featuring moving-scoring authority Jon Burlingame, who joins Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. The big supplement on this release is Jerry Goldsmith’s complete score on isolated tracks and not limited to music that made the final cut. As mentioned above music scored but cut by Guillerman is included, along with alternate takes/cues on a second track. And, as usual, Kirgo contributes her usual insightful liner notes.
I, for one, am glad that I held off seeing this until Twilight Time’s visually and aurally spectacular Blu-ray release, short of a 35mm screening under optical viewing conditions, this is definitely the way to see the picture.