Tag Archives: World War I

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Blu-ray Review: “The Blue Max” (1966)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Blu-ray Review: “Many Wars Ago” (1970)

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Francesco Rosi’s hot-blooded Many Wars Ago (Uomino contro, “Men Against,” 1970) is probably forever destined to be compared to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). The similarities aren’t superficial — by underlining the inhumanity and sheer absurdity of World War I trench warfare through a variety of carefully attuned formal techniques, both films arrive at a passionate, persuasive condemnation of war. With Paths of Glory, it feels like Kubrick is taking a less clinically detached approach to his material than in later works, but it never reaches the levels of overt, blistering anger that Rosi’s film does.

Many Wars Ago is a film where the fury of war is viscerally felt in scene after scene of pulsing movement and blasting sound. Rosi doesn’t shy away from launching a series of kinetic assaults on the senses, his close-up framing emphasizing chaos over any distinguishable moving parts. The approach is reminiscent of his earlier bullfighting drama The Moment of Truth (Il momento della verità, 1965), where movement becomes polemic by virtue of its visual forcefulness. In Many Wars Ago, Rosi does take time to focus in on individual characters, but many scenes deemphasize the humanity of the soldiers completely. In this world, you’re just a mass of flesh and metal. Attempts by soldiers to assert themselves as anything more than that generally result in a visit from the firing squad.

Source novel Un anno sull’altipiano (“A Year on the High Plateau,” 1938) was written by Italian soldier Emilio Lussu, based on his experiences in the Sassari Infantry Brigade in World War I. The film takes place during a series of skirmishes between the Italian army and Austro-Hungarian forces in mountainous terrain, and the Austrians seem to have the upper hand in almost every regard, their higher-ground positions and powerful machine guns cutting down any Italian plan before it has a chance of accomplishing anything.

The repeated futility is lost on Gen. Leone (Alain Cuny), a monstrously imperious leader, whose capricious leading style is more responsible for thinning out his own forces than anything the Austrians have planned. In matters of army motivation, he rules with an iron fist, demanding respect by having his own soldiers shot for the most minor of slip-ups. In matters of strategy, he’s something of a crazed lunatic, sending troops out on impossible missions to try to capture the enemy’s higher ground position. One of the film’s most strikingly absurd scenes has Leone outfit a group of soldiers in medieval-style armor and order them to re-attempt a failed gambit, as if this anachronistic tactic would render the hailing machine gun fire ineffective.

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In Rosi’s horrific vision of war, there is very little agency apart from Leone’s and the bureaucratic forces that underpin him. In one of Rosi’s shots of a teeming, anonymous mass of ground troops, Leone strides among the bodies, the only face in clear view. The film’s two de facto protagonists never stand a chance of overcoming this institutional behemoth; Lt. Sassu (Mark Frechette, in one of only two other roles after Zabriskie Point [1970]) seems to understand this, his world-weary, resigned demeanor contrasting sharply with his youthful features. Sassu is the stand-in for author Lussu, an upper-class young man whose support for the war drained away once he saw the horrors on the front line.

For Lt. Ottolenghi (Gian Maria Volonté), the possibility of mutiny keeps some hope alive, but his craftiness is ultimately useless. He tricks Leone into looking out through a pinhole viewing point that Austrian snipers have consistently fired on, but luck is not on his side. Leone walks away unscathed, while moments later, a bullet rips through a branch Ottolenghi places in the same spot. Moral order or even just a little ironic justice is absent here.

Many Wars Ago is a wearying, frustrating experience in both content and form. One is tempted to become numb to the repeated decimations of the Italian army, but Rosi’s nightmarishly constructed scenes of sound and fury on the battlefield prevent inurement. As a villain, Gen. Leone is hardly the subtlest of characters, but Leone is also not the object of Rosi’s venom; he’s merely the personification of a dehumanizing institution. This is one of the great, challenging, stomach-turning war films.

Raro Video gives Many Wars Ago its Region 1/A debut with its Blu-ray release (also available separately on DVD), and while there’s plenty to admire about the transfer, it’s been frustratingly framed in the non-theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It appears this is an open matte transfer, and the disc was approved by Rosi himself. Are we to assume the director prefers this framing? As far as I can tell, Raro’s old Region 2 DVD release of the film was presented in 1.66:1. As the film progressed, I wasn’t overly distracted by the framing, but some might find this a dealbreaker.

The 1080p high definition transfer was sourced from a reversal print belonging to the Italian National Film Archive, as the original negative has been lost. Taking this into consideration, it’s a pretty good-looking digital transfer, with a very clean image and reasonably high amounts of fine detail. Color consistency is another matter — fluctuation between tones is pretty common, sometimes so much so that the muddy browns and greens of one shot look almost like grayscale in the next. Flesh tones tend to look rather unnatural, and most of the time, the image has a faded appearance. Fortunately damage is mostly nonexistent and there doesn’t appear to be any of the excessive digital filtering that has affected some Raro Blu-rays.

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The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack does a nice job handling the wide range of volume. The piercing battle sound effects that Rosi pumps up can sound a little harsh, but that’s to be expected and kind of the point. English subtitles are optional.

Raro’s disc includes the following special features:

  • Interview with director Francesco Rosi (28 minutes) Rosi, now 91, is exceptionally sharp and engaging, recalling all sorts of specific details about the production of the film. He talks about wanting to make a film with a message after the fairy tale of More Than a Miracle (C’era una volta, “Once Upon a Time,” 1967), and discusses the contrasting reactions Many Wars Ago provoked, along with bits of production trivia.
  • Before and after restoration demonstration (2 minutes) Side-by-side comparison of select shots.
  • PDF of the original screenplay, only accessible on a computer with a Blu-ray disc drive.
  • 20-page booklet with an essay by Lorenzo Codelli, notes from Rosi, excerpts from positive and negative critical reviews and biographical information.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Raro Video’s Many Wars Ago Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: **1/2

Video Transfer: **

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **


Raro Video

1970 / Color / 1:33:1 / 101 min / $34.95


Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.