Watching The Bridge at Remagen sent me back with renewed admiration to John Guillermin’s take on World War One in The Blue Max. Again, a tale of two men battling for supremacy, although in this case they are both on the same side. Flying aces Lt Bruno Sachel (George Peppard) and Willi von Klugerman (Jeremy Kemp) could easily be accommodated within the highest echelons of the German fighter pilot division except that each wishes to be known as the country’s number one pilot and there is also a question of class and nepotism.
Quite how working-class Sachel Peppard makes the transition from grunt in the trenches to Germany’s elite flying corps is never made clear in this glorious aerial adventure. But he certainly brings with him an arsenal of attitude, clashing immediately with upper-class colleagues who retain fanciful notions of chivalry – harking back to the days of cavalry charges – in a conflict notorious for mass slaughter.
He climbs the society ladder on the back of a publicity campaign designed by General Count von Klugerman (James Mason) intent on creating a new public hero. On the way to ruthlessly gaining the medal of the title, awarded for downing twenty enemy aircraft, he beds Mason’s playful mistress Kaeti (Ursula Andress).
While the human element is skillfully drawn, the innate jealousy and petty rivalries that threaten to spoil the camaderie so essential to any war effort, it is the aerial element that captures the attention. The planes are both balletic and deadly. Because biplanes fly so much more slowly than World War Two fighters, the aerial scenes are far more intense than, say, The Battle of Britain (1969) and the dogfights, where you can see your opposite number’s face, just riveting. Recognition of the peril involved in taking to the sky in planes that seem to be held together with straw is on a par with Midway (2019) while the ability of the best pilots to dodge trouble in the sky has been more recently highlighted in top Gun: Maverick (2022).
I was astonishing to discover not only was this a flop – in part due to an attempt to sell it as a roadshow (blown up to 70mm for its New York premiere) – but critically disdained since it is an astonishing piece of work. Guillermin makes the shift from small British films to a full-blown Hollywood epic with ease. His camera tracks and pans and zooms to capture emotion and other times is perfectly still.
The best scene, packing an action and emotional wallop, will knock your socks off. Having eliminated any threat from an enemy plane, rather than shoot down the pilot, Peppard escorts it back to base, but just as he arrives the tail-gunner suddenly rouses himself and Peppard finishes the plane off over the home airfield, the awe his maneuver originally inspired turning to disgust.
The action sequences are brilliantly constructed, far better than, for example 1917 (2019) – which by contrast appears labored. One battle involving planes and ground troops is a masterpiece of cinematic orchestration, contrasting raw hand-to-hand combat between enemy soldiers with aerial skirmish. Guillermin takes a classical approach to widescreen with action often taking place in long shot with the compositional clarity of a John Ford western. Equally, he uses faces to express emotional response to imminent or ongoing action.
George Peppard (Pendulum, 1969) is both the best thing and the worst thing about the picture. He certainly hits the bull’s eye as a man whose chip on one shoulder is neatly balanced by arrogance on the other. But it is too much of a one-note performance and the stiff chin and blazing eyes are not tempered enough with other emotion, and he fails to portray the kind of complex character he would essay so brilliantly in P.J./New Face in Hell (1968) and House of Cards (1968) It would have been a five-star picture had he brought a bit more savvy to the screen, but otherwise it is at the top of the four-star brigade.
James Mason (Age of consent, 1969) is at his suave best, his aristocratic German somewhat redeems the actor after his appalling turn the same year as a Chinaman in Genghis Khan. Jeremy Kemp (A Twist of Sand, 1968) is surprisingly good as the equally ruthless but distinctly more humane superior officer. For once given the chance to act, Ursula Andress (The Southern Star, 1969) is more than mere eye candy, the kind of mistress with an eye more on the main chance than true love, although she does manage to swan around in one scene clad in only towels.
Look out for Derren Nesbit (The Naked Runner, 1967), Anton Diffring (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), Harry Towb (The Bliss of Mrs Blossom, 1968) and Karl Michael Vogler (The Dance of Death, 1967).
Guillemin’s technical skill is outstanding. In Bridge at Remagen it was the tracking camera and the blitz of war that captured the eye, here it is fabulous aerial photography. In the later picture, it was often hard to delineate individuals within the overall frame since the whole point of the film was the absolute messiness of war, but The Blue Max, dealing with one-on-one duels, presented a better opportunity to take advantage of cinematic elan. The screenplay, based on the bestseller by Jack Hunter, was courtesy of the team of David Pursall and Jack Seddon (The Southern Star) and Gerald Hanley (The Last Safari, 1967) after initial work by Ben Barzman and Basilio Franchina (both The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964).
There had been a marked trend towards even-handedness in terms of presenting both sides during World War Two, as exemplified by Battle of the Bulge (1965), but this was the first to present the Germans in such heroic fashion.