The Blue Max is a big budget war movie with sub-par acting, gorgeous cinematography, magnificent stunt flying, and a bloated, B-movie script that ultimately works as a left-wing critique of neoliberalism. I can understand why it was panned by the critics when it first came out in 1966. With so many British actors speaking in fake German accents, a running time of over two and a half hours, and George Peppard’s wooden performance, it can be a little tough to sit through if you’re not nostalgic for the history of early military aviation. But in spite of its flaws, The Blue Max might just be one of the best war movies of the 1960s.
The Blue Max opens in 1917. Corporal Bruno Stachel, George Peppard, is a front line soldier of the imperial German army in France. He looks up to see a pair of biplanes looping through the clouds. Surely this is a better way to fight the war than spending it in the trenches with the rats, mud, and piles of rotten corpses, the look in his eyes says. We flash ahead to 1918. Corporal Stachel is now Lieutenant Stachel, having been given a battlefield commission after graduating from flight school. But he’s still conscious of having been a front line soldier. On he way to join his squadron, a group of soldiers, grizzled tired looking veterans, look on in envy as he drinks a bottle of Schnapps. He tosses them the bottle and continues on his way.
It’s a neat little narrative trick in an otherwise bloated movie, demonstrating that, in spite of all his desire to succeed, Stachel still identifies with his fellow blue collar grunts. Stachel’s new commanding officer, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann, an old school Prussian aristocrat, interrogates Stachel about his class background. “My father ran a small hotel,” Stachel finally says, reluctantly. “It had 5 employees.” That, in turn, provokes the observation from the squadron’s ace, a Lieutenant Willi von Klugermann, Jeremy Kemp with a fake German accent, that “he was probably a waiter.” The war, in other words, is also a class war. The carnage on the western front has killed so many German officers it got Bruno Stachel a commission. For the “gentlemen” in Hauptmann’s squadron this is a reminder that, before 1914, Germany had the largest socialist party in Europe. The rest of Western Europe is democratic. Even if Germany manages to beat France and England before the United States can send troops in significant numbers, things may never go back to normal. Stachel, the self-made man from a lower-class background, is as much a threat to their way of life as the French or the English. But Bruno Stachel is no leftist. On the contrary, he’s the prototypical neoliberal capitalist. For Hauptmann Otto Heidemann, French and English pilots are his fellow gentleman, worthy adversaries, fellow knights in shining armor who are to be battled against according to the rules of chivalry. For Stachel, the French and English are simply raw material, the opportunity to make “kills” and push his way up through the ranks of the German air corps. He couldn’t care less about chivalry or about the “Fatherland.” He cares about his ambition, to score 20 “kills” and be awarded the “Blue Max,” the Pour le Mérite order founded by Frederick the Great. It’s only a medal, to be sure, but it’s also a sign that he’s arrived.
Stachel, in addition to being ambitious, is a very good combat pilot. Perhaps it takes some suspension of disbelief to believe he’s as good as he is, perhaps not. After all, a man who rises through the ranks into a squadron of “gentlemen” who can’t stand him would have to be good to survive for any length of time. Stachel’s first “kill” is unconfirmed, and Haumptmann is in no hurry to go out of his way to investigate it. For his second “kill” Stachel maneuvers an English fighter plane right over the squadron’s runway and blows it out of the sky. It’s a dazzling piece of flying that attracts the attention of General Count von Klugermann, played by James Mason with a fake German accent. Germany has finally knocked the rotten old Czarist empire out of the war, but the General Staff still know that American troops means they’ll eventually lose. As General Ludendorff’s great Spring Offensive of 1918 goes ahead, and the Germans desperately try to take Paris before the United States swings the balance of power in favor of the French and English, Stachel and Willi von Klugermann, the general’s nephew, conduct their home run derby, racking up kills like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit home runs.
Stachel and Willi von Klugermann also compete for the attention of Countess Kaeti von Klugermann, the general’s trophy bride, played by Ursula Andress. I didn’t like her when I saw the film on television as a teenager. I thought the “romance” between her and Stachel cold and self-serving, but that, indeed, is entirely the point. For Stachel, Kaeti von Klugermann is a prize just like the Blue Max, a trophy that will let him feel superior to the “gentlemen” who despise him. For Kaeti, Stachel is just another war hero, another conquest, something to occupy the young wife of a dried up old man. It’s sex as neoliberalism and neoliberalism as sex. General von Klugermann, in turn, knows his wife is sleeping with Stachel and Willi, but he doesn’t care. He’s more concerned with Stachel’s value as a poster boy for the German air force than with his wife’s infidelity. As the Spring Offensive grinds to a halt under the weight of American reinforcements, and as the German General Staff loses touch with reality, Stachel finds that his value as propaganda only increases. Willi is killed in the film’s most famous sequence, an extended game of stunt of stunt flying. Not incidentally, Willi also shoots down two English planes, two “kills” his death lets Stachel steal for himself, surpass 20, and finally get his Blue Max.
Hauptmann informs von Klugermann that he believes Stachel falsely claimed two of Willis kills and suggests he be court martialed. But von Klugermann cares no more for Stachel’s dishonesty than he cares for his wife’s infidelity. Klugermann, delusional, believes that a new weapon, a sleek monoplane, will turn the tide of the war. He wants Germany’s remaining star ace to publicly test fly it. But he doesn’t count on his wife. After Stachel confesses to Kaeti von Klugermann that he lied about the “kills,” she realizes she now has him where she wants him, wrapped around her thumb. Stachel, who sees Kaeti as a prize doesn’t quite realize that Kaeti in fact sees him as her prize, that he defies her will at his peril. She tells him she knows Germany’s losing the war, his status as a hero will be meaningless in a few years, and that he should run away with her to Switzerland. He turns her down.
In the end, Stachel is tripped up by that old cliche, a “woman scorned.” She turns him into the German General staff. Hauptmann was right. He should have been court martialed. But it’s too late. General von Klugermann has already built the test flight up as a major event. What to do? If he pulls the flight, the entire campaign to turn Stachel into a hero will backfire. If he let’s the flight go ahead, then it will be even worse when the truth comes out. He stalls. He sends Hauptmann up first. Hauptmann does a few careful turns around the airfield, reporting to von Klugermann when he finally, with difficulty, manages to land, that the plane is unstable, a “death trap.” It will come apart at the seams if a pilot puts any real stress on its wings. A light goes off in von Klugermann’s head. He has his way out. He signals to Stachel that the flight can go on. “And let’s see some real flying,” he says, sealing Stachel’s doom by appealing to his vanity. Kaeti and Hauptmann are initially horrified but they go along anyway. They both have their own reasons for wanting Stachel dead. Stachel’s flying doesn’t disappoint and, in the climatic, and most brilliantly filmed aerial scene he takes off into the clouds, putting on a glorious display of stunt flying until the stress is too much. The plane comes apart and Stachel crashes to the ground in a spectacular inferno. General von Klugermann, now satisfied, stamps the young lieutenant’s death certificate. Bruno Stachel dies a hero, but to what end? The war is lost.
The imperial German Army in The Blue Max is, of course, the Imperial Germany Army. But it’s also the American army just about to embark on its own futile war in Vietnam. George Peppard plays the ambitious Bruno Stachel as an American, not a German. He doesn’t even try to imitate the accent, the spit and polish, the mannerisms of a Prussian aristocrat. He’s a 1960s American anti-hero down to the bone. James Mason is sufficiently Teutonic as General von Klugermann. But General von Klugermann himself is also, at heart, an American public relations specialist, a man who promotes a working-class soldier as a hero in a last ditch effort to keep the common people of Germany in the war. The Blue Max, by relocating the American military industrial complex in a conflict that had ended 50 years before and in a long gone army the United States had fought against, slipped its left-wing, anti-war message by the critics. The cinematography and magnificent aerial sequences only make it go down easier. Had people really paid attention to a seemingly mediocre B-movie script, they would have seen a blunt critique of neoliberalism at war.