Saturday, 16 August 2008

The Blue Max (1966)

The Blue Max (1966) is a motion picture following the career of German fighter pilot Leutenant Bruno Stachel during the closing stages of World War I. The screenplay was by David Pursall, Jack Seddon and Gerald Hanley, based on a novel of the same name by Jack Hunter. It was directed by John Guillermin and starred George Peppard, James Mason, Ursula Andress, Jeremy Kemp, Karl Michael Voger, Anton Diffring and Darren Nesbitt. Music was by Jerry Goldsmith.

In the spring of 1918, the war is going very badly for Germany. Bruno Stachel (Peppard), after two years service on the Western Front, leaves the fighting in the trenches to become a fighter pilot with the Imperial German Army Air Service. The son of a hotelier, Stachel is greeted cordially by his new CO, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Vogler) and his adjutant Holbach (Diffring), but faces appalling snobbery from his aristocratic squadron-mates on account of his humble background. He determines to prove himself where it matters – in the air (and, later on, in the bedroom) and resolves to win the coveted Pour le Merite - the eponymous Blue Max – “the only medal worth having – people respect it”. The Blue Max is awarded to fighter pilots for downing twenty enemy aircraft (in actuality the number required was gradually increased during the course of the war from eight to thirty). One of the squadron’s pilots, Willi von Klugermann (Kemp) only needs another two kills.

On his first sortie, Stachel shoots down a British SE5, but the “kill” is unconfirmed because nobody saw the aircraft go down. He spends hours searching the countryside in the pouring rain for the wreckage, to the annoyance of his fellow flyers, who think he is more concerned about his unconfirmed kill than he is about his wingman Fabian (Nesbitt), who failed to return. Willi, however, has gained the two remaining kills he needs for his Blue Max.

On his next sortie, accompanied by Willi, Stachel attacks a British two-man reconnaissance plane, putting the observer out of action. Rather than shoot down a helpless enemy, he signals the pilot to surrender and fly to his base. The pilot complies, but while approaching the airfield the observer, who has only been stunned, revives and – unaware of the situation – reaches for his gun, giving Stachel no choice but to shoot the aircraft down. Both the crew are killed.

Back on the ground, Stachel is accused of cold-bloodedly shooting the plane down over the airfield to ensure that the kill is witnessed. After the fuss he kicked up over the unconfirmed kill, Heidemann refuses to believe that Stachel simply acted in self-defence. Only Willi supports Stachel’s version of events. But when the two British airmen are buried with full military honours, Stachel further annoys his fellow officers by branding them as hypocrites.

However things begin to look up for Stachel when Willi’s uncle, General Count von Klugermann (Mason), accompanied by his much younger and somewhat over-sexed wife Kaeti (Andress), visits the base to see his nephew awarded the Blue Max. Von Klugermann is intrigued by the incident with the reconnaissance plane and feels Stachel might be exploited for propaganda purposes – a “working class hero” who will appeal to the masses.

Von Klugermann isn’t the only one to take an interest in Stachel. His wife the Countess –who is having an affair with Willi - mistakenly enters Stachel’s room en route to Willi’s bedroom. Both appear to have their interest piqued!

Back in action, Stachel goes to the aid of the Baron von Richthofen and shoots down a British aircraft that has got on the tail of the legendary fighter ace, but he gets shot down himself in the process. He escapes with only minor injuries and a grateful von Richthofen offers him a place in his squadron. Stachel is flattered by the offer, but declines.

While recovering from his injuries, Stachel is ordered to Berlin by Count von Klugermann as part of the latter’s propaganda project - a photo-shoot in a hospital ward alongside Heidemann’s wife, who works as a nurse at the hospital. While in Berlin, Stachel is invited to dinner by the Countess. The inevitable happens. Willi is none too happy!

Returning to duty, Stachel joins Willi on a mission to escort a reconnaissance aircraft. They are attacked by British aircraft, but early in the engagement Stachel’s guns jam. However Willi puts the enemy planes to flight, shooting down three of them. On the way back to base, Willi challenges Stachel, flying under the centre span of a bridge. Stachel outdoes him by flying under one of the narrower side spans. Willi successfully follows suit, but then clips the top of a near-by tower. He crashes and is killed.

Back at base, Stachel reports Willi’s death, but is furious when Heidemann assumes that two confirmed kills are Willi’s and not his. He falsely claims the kills for himself, but becomes trapped by his lie when Holbach points out that he only fired 40 rounds before his guns jammed. Heidemann refuses to confirm the kills, but von Klugermann overrules him.

Stachel, resuming his liaison with the Countess, is overcome with guilt and rather unwisely confesses to “stealing” Willi’s kills.

With Germany now on the brink of defeat, the squadron is ordered to cover the army’s retreat and strafe British forces on the ground, with explicit instructions to avoid air combat. But Stachel disobeys and engages a group of British aircraft. The squadron follows him into action. They bring down seven aircraft, but suffer heavy losses in the process. Three of the kills are Stachels, giving him twenty-two – enough for the Blue Max even without Willi’s kills.

Heidemann has Stachel arrested and intends to have him court-martialed for disobeying orders. Both are ordered to Berlin, but once again von Klugermann overrules Heidemann and informs him that Stachel is to be presented with the Blue Max by Kronprinz Wilhelm, after which he is to test fly a new experimental monoplane. Heidemann resigns his command in disgust.

The Countess, meanwhile, wants Stachel to flee Germany with her to Switzerland. But Stachel refuses to be one of her “lapdogs” and she storms out in a rage. She then informs von Klugermann’s superior, the Field Marshal, about the two false kills. Hell hath no fury...

The next day, Stachel is invested with the Blue Max, but during the ceremony von Klugermann receives a telephone call from the Field Marshal, who is insisting on an enquiry into the two false kills. Von Klugermann berates his wife, whose anger is going to result in the whole German officer corps being brought into disrepute.

But then Heidemann, who has taken the new monoplane up for a preliminary flight, returns and reports that the aircraft is a death trap and that its load-bearing struts are far too weak. Seeing a way out, von Klugermann telephones Stachel and orders him take the monoplane up himself and show the crowd some fancy flying.

Surrounded by a cheering crowd, with the Blue Max around his neck, Stachel makes his way to the monoplane and takes to the air. Heidemann is utterly horrified when he sees the plane take off and realises that von Klugermann is deliberately sending Stachel to his death. Stachel proceeds to put the aircraft through its paces, but it breaks up, plummets to the ground and explodes. At the moment of impact, von Klugermann stamps and signs Stachel's personnel file. He orders it to be sent to the Field Marshal as the personnel file of a German officer and a hero.

The story is presented as a clash between the honourable values of Otto Heidemann versus those of the ruthless Stachel and the cynical scheming Count von Klugermann. The Prussian aristocracy had traditional notions of chivalry which – no matter how commendable – had little or no place in the brutal reality of Twentieth Century warfare. Unfortunately there was in actuality a far more ruthless “working class hero” than Bruno Stachel serving as a corporal on the Western Front during World War I – Adolf Hitler.


The Blue Max was filmed in County Wicklow with the consequence that the memorable flying scenes are set against the verdant Irish countryside rather than the sea of mud that was the Western Front by 1918. Another blooper is that the Irish Dail can clearly be seen in one of the “Berlin” scenes, which were filmed in Dublin.

It should however be remembered that people were less obsessed with absolute authenticity in the 1950s and 1960s: for example in The Battle of the River Plate, the panzerschiff Admiral Graff Spee is “played” by the heavy cruiser USS Salem. The inconvenient extra pair of main gun turrets was explained away as “camouflage”. The story certainly didn’t suffer as a result and is far better remembered for its sympathetic portrayal of the Graf Spee’s skipper, Hans Langsdorff, played by Peter Finch.

Modern CGI can achieve a degree of realism way beyond anything that could be achieved back then. Or can it? The flying scenes in the Blue Max used real aeroplanes flown by real pilots, including Peppard, who obtained a PPL especially for the purpose, though for the bridge scene he was rather wisely substituted for a stunt pilot!

Jack Seddon [my father] and his long-standing business partner David Pursall both served as airmen in World War II; my father flew with the RAF and David with the Royal Fleet Air Arm.

Beginning in the 1950s, David and my father formed a prolific screenwriting partnership which endured for almost three decades.

Much of their oeuvre was comedy but probably their best-known film other than the Blue Max was also a war movie: The Longest Day (1962) - an all-star dramatization of the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. This was notable for its use of subtitles in scenes involving French and Germans and for being made in black and white at a time when nearly all motion pictures were being made in colour. Both were at the insistence of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who wanted to give the film a “newsreel” quality. The Longest Day was thus one of the earliest examples of both subtitles and b/w being used for dramatic effect.

The film was based on a book by the Irish-American author Cornelius Ryan, who also wrote a screenplay for the movie version. The screenplay was substantially revised by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and my father. But Ryan allegedly insisted that he alone be credited for the screenplay and although all five were credited in early cinematic releases of the Longest Day, later copies credited only Ryan. This did not come to light until the 1990s, over thirty years after the film’s appearance, by which time my father was the only one of the five still living. He got into a lengthy wrangle with the US screenwriters guild, but the matter was still unresolved at the time of his death in 2001. Happily a compromise now appears to have been reached, with Cornelius Ryan credited as writer of the original screenplay and the other four including my father with “additional work”. It should be pointed out that Halliwell’s Film Guide has always attributed the screenplay to all five writers.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

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