To the Max…The Blue Max

As one of the more typical war epics on this WWI films list, The Blue Max portrays a dramatic depiction of air combat set against the rapid shift of modern warfare in the early 20th century. While we do not have the film on DVD, it is available online by searching the library catalog or directly through the Feature Films for Education database.

The film itself was an incredible feat of 1960s cinema. The producer, Christian Ferry, sought to create the greatest WWI air combat film of all time. Despite questions about historical accuracy, the film required the assembly of two miniature air forces at the cost of a quarter million dollars (roughly $2 million today), as the owners of the few surviving WWI war birds did not want to risk destruction for the film. Director Peter Jackson (of LotR trilogy fame), who is himself working on a stunning new WWI documentary utilizing colorized original footage, heralded the film as one of his top 6 best WWI films, and the very best in terms of the war in the air.

The film centers around Lt. Bruno Stachel, convincingly played by George Peppard, perhaps best known for his roles as Paul Varjak in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and as John ‘Hannibal’ Smith from the 1980s hit show the A-Team. Stachel, a former foot soldier on the Western front trenches, seeks to succeed as an officer in the German Army Air Service and secure the Blue Max, Germany’s highest medal for valor (requiring him to shoot down 20 aircraft). Seeking a more authentic experience, amazingly, George Peppard even learned to fly for his performance

George Peppard as Bruno Stachel

and did some of his own flying in his role (though not the famed and dangerous flight under a bridge).

Stachel is seen as middle-class by the rest of the officer pilots, and alienates himself, sometimes to the detriment of his fellow team members. After his first combat kill goes unconfirmed, Stachel appears almost on a fanatical mission to prove its veracity and gain the upperhand in his quest for glory. Eventually, Stachel’s actions put him in conflict with his commanding officer, Hautpmann Otto Heidemann, an aristocratic man who still clings fervently to a belief in chivalry and German customs of war, as well as, Willi von Klugermann, a capable but competitive pilot in the same air unit. Ultimately, the competition between Stachel and Klugermann leads to the latter’s death, and Stachel arrogantly takes credit for the others kills. The same arrogance leads Stachel to seduce Kaeti, the wife of General Count von Klugermann (played by James Mason of North by Northwest fame). Stachel’s affair included a rather risqué scene, for the 1960s, from the first Bond girl, Ursula Andres, but also to Stachel’s downfall once he scorns her advances in favor of his love of combat flying.

The film culminates as Stachel is sent to Berlin to receive his Blue Max, despite the continued protestations of Heidemann. Ultimately, at Kaeti’s instigation, an investigation is opened into Stachel’s false claims of victory. It dawns on Klugermann that his wife had betrayed both him and Stachel. Seeking to avoid a scandal and save his own career, Klugermann orders Stachel to test a faulty “death trap” monoplane. Betrayed by his superior, Stachel’s plane breaks up and explodes onto the ground. Afterwhich the General rubber-stamps Stachel’s personnel files, saying “Give this to the Field Marshal. It is the personal file of a German officer…and a hero.”

The Blue Max ultimately plays out like the opposite of the aforementioned film Sergeant York from 1941. Stachel is as much a selfish and arrogant character as Sgt. York was selfless and modest. Yet, it is a certain heroism that binds the two soldiers. Being a fighter pilot during WWI was in itself a solitary, but incredibly dangerous job. Getting into the wood and cloth-based machines and squaring off against other pilots took an undeniable amount of skill, bravery, and confidence. The required bravado particularly lent itself to the celebration of individual air aces. Men like the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, and the other air aces of WWI, found fame above and beyond that of the many nameless soldiers who sloughed through the trenches. Despite the reality of the dog fights and and the daring nature of the aerial combat scenes, the film makes little effort to romanticize the air aces involved. Stachel is something of an anti-hero, who appears to have little regard for anything other than himself. Even his love interest is more of an obstacle to conquest, because of her relationship with Stachel’s nemesis, rather than a meaningful relationship. In a pivotal scene before receiving his long sought after medal, Stachel scolds her, saying, “Do you think I came all this way to run off with you to Zurich…this was about flying, not you.” In this way, The Blue Max says as much about the internal corruption of the military and the self-centered, dehumanizing nature of total war as the heroic nature of aerial combat in WWI.

Posted in WWI on Film.