Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Blue Max

A WWI film from the German point of view and one with an interesting major theme of class conflict. The following, just stressing that theme, comes from wikipedia which has a most extensive entry on the film
The Blue Max is a 1966 British World War I film directed by John Guillermin and starring George Peppard, James Mason, Ursula Andress, Karl Michael Vogler, Derren Nesbitt, Harry Towb and Jeremy Kemp.

Stachel comes from a humble background, serving two years in the infantry and attaining the rank of corporal. The opening scene depicts Stachel as a steel-helmeted landser (footsoldier) in 1916, running through no-man's land, evading enemy machinegun fire. As his fellow soldiers fall, Stachel leaps into a muddy trench for cover, barely escaping death. It is here that he gazes skyward and sees two planes engaged in aerial combat. His eyes are wide and his mouth agape at the wonderment of singular aerial combat in stark contrast to the ignominious death of an infantryman.

As a newly commissioned officer, Stachel is driven to his airfield while weary infantry soldiers lie beside the road. He tosses a nearly full bottle of Schnapps to a soldier (alcohol is expensive and hard to find). His driver remarks, "That was a full bottle, Herr Leutnant," to which Stachel replies with a wry smile, "Yes, I know." This scene demonstrates Stachel's generosity and empathy with the common man, a characteristic that the driver finds unusual and remarkable in an officer.

The German officer corps had historically been composed of wealthy aristocrats. As the war lingers and the need for aviators increases, they begin to draw from the enlisted ranks composed mostly of the lower classes; this is how Stachel attains his commission.

When he arrives at his unit, Hauptmann Heidemann asks him, "What made you transfer to the Air Corps?" Stachel answers genuinely, "To fly, Herr Hauptmann," which is regarded, judging by the facial expression of Heidemann, as phony. Heidemann, baiting Stachel to reveal false humility, asks, "Are you a good flyer?" Stachel responds humbly, "I'm...comfortable in the air, Herr Hauptmann," naively avoiding the trap he did not know had been set for him. Heidemann reacts, "Comfortable, are you? Interesting."

The film immediately breaches the issue of social standing. Noting in his file that Stachel is from Wiesbaden, Heidemann says, "I've done some hunting around there. Who are your people?" presumably indicating familiarity with other aristocrats in the area. Stachel does not initially understand. Heidemann clarifies, "I want to know something of your background. What does your father do?" The other officers and enlisted are quiet and lean forward, awaiting his answer. Stachel (noticeably uncomfortable) replies that his father works for a small hotel (then, turning his head to look directly at the others)...with five bedrooms. Heidemann takes Stachel into his private office and says, "I'm sorry if it bothers you, what your father does." Stachel says, "It doesn't bother ME, Herr Hauptmann." Heidemann retorts, "Then why are you so touchy about it," as Stachel snaps to attention. Heidemann follows up: "Well, you're an officer now....your social problems are of no concern to us." Later, in Stachel's absence, the other pilots joke about his low status. Willi says, "Of course he could have been lying about the five bedrooms." Another pilot remarks: "Willi, there's something I haven't told you. I have an uncle in the hotel business. I admit he's a Baron, and the hotel has 500 bedrooms, but you do see the position this places me in. (All the pilots laugh)

While many who view the film see only Stachel's obsessive attempt to earn glory at any cost by attaining the Blue Max, this is a common misunderstanding. Stachel is trying to gain respect from the aristocrats by proving himself to be just as good a pilot and a man. If the setting were, instead, the Tuskegee Airmen interacting with white pilots during WWII, there would probably be no such misunderstanding. The theme, though, is the same: class distinction and prejudice.

Willi von Klugermann, an arrogant, aggressive aristocrat, immediately engages Stachel. As Stachel reports to the unit, Willi flies low over his head, driving Stachel down into the mud - a metaphor for their continuing relationship. Later, he brushes the mud off Stachel's coat in a faux apology, "Sorry about that." Willi recognizes Stachel's intention to prove himself an equal man after two incidents: an obsessive attempt to locate an unconfirmed kill, and the subsequent shooting down of a British aircraft directly over the airfield. Willi (smugly) agrees to fly with Stachel, when no other pilot volunteers. This is not an act of "friendship" as some have described it, but rather a meeting of Stachel's challenge (although the novel, in contrast to the movie, does show a burgeoning friendship between the two). Their rivalry extends not only to flying, but to the affections of Willi's aunt Kaeti, with whom Willi is having an affair.

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