Released in 1966, this WW I adventure was directed by John Gillermin and stars George Peppard, James Mason and Ursula Andress. These three “A” listers alone would have ensured the movie’s success, but what made it a cut above the rest was the magnificently directed aerial combat scenes.
Peppard plays German infantry soldier Bruno Stachel, who is mired at the start of the movie in the mud, blood and the massive, impersonal death of static trench warfare on the Western Front. He manages to escape this living hell and wrangle a transfer to the German Air Service, where he becomes a pilot and receives a commission as lieutenant. Overnight, he leaves the filth and stench of the trenches to join a flying squadron billeted in a chalet that houses the aristocracy of the German military, who toast their dead comrades with champagne! It’s a rough adjustment for Stachel. When asked why he isn’t toasting the death of a squadron mate, he says, “Perhaps it’s force of habit. In the trenches, we couldn’t even bury the dead; there were too many of them. I’ve never had the time … to discuss them over a glass of champagne.”
With his humble origins as a simple soldier, Stachel is obsessed with proving himself their equal by shooting down enough enemy aircraft to win the coveted Blue Max, Germany’s highest decoration for valor. Stachel proves to be a brilliant yet ruthless pilot who will let nobody stand in his way. All the while, he’s carrying on a running feud with his commanding officer and having an affair with a general’s wife: two moves not considered “career enhancing” for a young lieutenant in an Army!
Hollywood melodrama aside, what truly lifts this movie are the magnificent flight scenes, including a deadly game of aerial “chicken” between Stachel and his chief rival, who has already earned the Blue Max. This incredible scene, where both pilots fly under a bridge, was filmed 55 years ago, in real time, with real pilots flying real aircraft. The flight scenes alone make “The Blue Max” well worth watching, earning it a spot as one of the all-time greats of its genre.
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