The Blue Max (1966) ****

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.

Fraulein Doktor (1969) ****

Surprisingly good World War One spy yarn full to bursting with clever ruses and pieces of deception and ending with a stunning depiction of carnage on the Western Front.  Loosely based on the life of Elsbeth Schragmuller, it fell foul on release to British and American hostility over the Germans actually winning anything.

The film breaks down into three sections: the unnamed Doktor landing at the British naval base in Scapa Flow in Orkney to plan the death of Lord Kitchener; a flashback to France where she steals a new kind of poison gas; and finally on the Western Front where, disguised as a Red Cross nurse, she masterminds an attempt to steal vital war plans. She is hampered by her emotions, romance never helpful for an espionage agent, and her addiction to morphine.

Duelling spymasters the British Colonel Foreman (Kenneth More) and the German Colonel Mathesius (Nigel Green) both display callousness in exploiting human life. The films is so full of twists and turns and, as I mention, brilliant pieces of duplicity that I hesitate to tell you any more for fear of introducing plot spoilers, suffice to say that both men excel at the outwitting game.

I will limit myself to a couple of examples just to get you in the mood. Foreman has apprehended two German spies who have landed by submarine on Scapa Flow. He knows another one has escaped. The imprisoned Meyer (James Booth) watches his colleague shot by a firing squad. Foreman, convinced Meyer’s courage will fail at the last minute, instructs the riflemen to load up blanks. Before a shot is fired, Meyer gives up and spills the beans on the Doktor only to discover that Foreman faked the death of his colleague.

And there is a terrific scene where the Fraulein, choosing the four men who will accompany her on her final mission, asks those willing to die to step forward. She chooses the ones not willing to die. When asking one of these soldiers why he stayed back he replied that she wouldn’t want to know if he could speak Flemish if he was so expendable.

The Fraulein is always one step ahead of her pursuers, changing clothes and hair color to make redundant any description of her, and knowing a double bluff when she sees one. In France as a maid she turns seductress to win the trust of scientist Dr Saforet (Capucine) who has developed a new, deadlier, strain of poison gas. It’s unclear whether, appalled at the potential loss of life to her fellow Germans, this is her motivation to turn spy or whether at this point she is already an accomplished agent. In the final section she takes command of the entire operation.

What distinguishes this from the run-of-the-mill spy adventure is, for a start, not just the female spy, how easily she dupes her male counterparts, and that the British are apt just to be as expedient as the Germans, but the savage reality of the war played out against a British and German upper class sensibility. When a train full of Red Cross nurses arrives at the front, the wounded men have to be beaten back; Foreman thinks it unsporting to use a firing squad; a German general refuses to award the Fraulein a medal because Kitchener was a friend of his; and the Doktor’s masquerade as a Red Cross nurse goes unchallenged because she adopts the persona of a countess.

Far from being an evil genius, the Doktor is depicted as a woman alarmed at the prospect of thousands of her countrymen being killed and Germany losing the war. In order to cram in all the episodes, her later romance is somewhat condensed but the emotional response it triggers is given full vent. And there is tenderness in her affair with Dr Saforet, hair combing a prelude to exploring feelings for each other.

Apart from King and Country (1964), The Blue Max (1966) and Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), depictions of the First World War were rare in the 1960s, and the full-scale battle at the film’s climax is exceptionally well done with long tracking shots of poison gas, against which masks prove little deterrent, as it infiltrates the British lines. The horror of war becomes true horror as faces blister and, in one chilling shot, skin separates from bone and sticks to the barrel of a rifle.

If I have any quibbles, it’s a sense that there was a brilliant film to be made here had only the budget been bigger and veteran director Alberto Lattuada (Matchless, 1967) had made more of the suspense. Suzy Kendall (The Penthouse, 1967) easily carries the film, adopting a variety of disguises, accents and characters, yet still showing enough of her own true feelings. Kenneth More (Dark of the Sun, 1968), in more ruthless mode than previous screen incarnations, is excellent as is counterpart Nigel Green (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) but James Booth (Zulu, 1963) has little to do other than look shifty. Capucine (North to Alaska, 1960) has an interesting cameo.

Ennio Morricone (Once upon a Time in the West, 1969) has created a masterly score, a superb romantic theme at odds with the discordant sounds he composes for the battles scenes. Collectors of trivia might like to know that Dita Parlo had starred in a more romantic British version of the story Under Secret Orders (1937) with a German version, using the same actress, filmed at the same time by G.W. Pabst as Street of Shadows (1937), both revolving around this infamous secret agent.

This is far from your normal spy drama. Each of the main sequences turned out differently to what I expected and with the German point-of-view taking precedence makes for an unusual war picture. I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated.

Another freebie on YouTube. I could not find a DVD so you might need to check out secondhand dealers on Ebay.

The Assassination Bureau (1969) ***

A couple of decades before the “high concept” was invented came this high concept picture – a killer is hired to kill himself. Oliver Reed is the assassin in question and Diana Rigg the journalist doing the hiring. So Reed challenges the other members of his murderous outfit to kill him before he despatches them. The odds are about ten to one. Initially involved in shadowing Reed, Rigg becomes drawn to his aid when it transpires there is a bigger conspiracy afoot.

Set just before World War One, the action cuts a swathe through Europe’s glamour cities – London, Paris, Vienna, Venice – while stopping off for a bit of slapstick, some decent sight gags and a nod now and then to James Bond (gadgets) and the Pink Panther (exploding sausages). Odd a mixture as it is, mostly it works, thanks to the intuitive partnership of director Basil Dearden and producer (and sometime writer and designer) Michael Relph, previously responsible this decade for League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961), Masquerade (1965) and Khartoum (1966).

The American advertisement for the film set out its stall in a different way to the British advertisement with Diana Rigg taking pride of place.

Moustached media magnate Telly Savalas has a decent chomp at an upper-class British accent. It’s easy to forget was one of the things that marked him out was his clear diction and he always had an air about him, so this was possibly less of a stretch. Ramping up the fun is a multi-cultural melange in supporting roles: Frenchman Phillipe Noiret (Night of the Generals, 1967), everyone’s favourite German Curt Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964) playing another general, Italian Annabella Contrera (The Ambushers, 1967) and Greek George Coulouris (Arabesque, 1966) plus British stalwarts Beryl Reid (The Killing of Sister George, 1969) as a brothel madam, television’s Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part), Kenneth Griffith and Clive Revill (Fathom, 1967).

The action flits between sudden danger and elaborate set pieces. When Reed announces his proposal to his board he promptly fells a colleague with a gavel just as that man throws a knife. Apart from folderols in a Parisian brothel, we are treated to a Viennese waltz and malarkey in Venice. There are disguises aplenty, donned by our hero and his enemies. Lighters are turned into flame throwers. And there is a lovely sly sense of humour, an Italian countess, wanting rid of her husband, does so under the pretext of Reed gone rogue. Reed and Rigg (in her best Julie Andrews impression) are in excellent form and strike sparks off each other. The second-last film from Dearden suggested he wanted to go out in style.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

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