Some readers may have stopped reading at “1966.” Don’t. This film influenced George Lucas’ Star Wars and was an obsession of sorts for Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Skip to the end if you can’t hang in.
The Blue Max was envisioned as a grand epic film typical of the mid-1960s. Unfortunately, box office expectations weren’t met, scuttling any plans for a Blue Max II.
There are few films about WWI, and even fewer about aviation and aerial dogfights – discounting the more recent, but inferior, Fly Boys (2006). TBM is one the best military aviation films ever made, the Top Gun of its time.
It stars a handsome George Peppard as the lower class Bruno Stachel who leaves the German trenches to soar in the skies and do battle like a gentleman. He’s determined to prove himself better than his aristocratic fellow pilots by winning Germany’s highest WWI military honor, the Blue Max, earned by shooting down 20 enemy planes.
He’s a rather ruthless but likable rogue. Venerable actor James Mason plays his commanding general. Ursula Andress – the Bond Girl in Dr. No – plays the general’s wife, a countess whom Stachel, and everyone else it seems, lusts after.
Spectacular aerial sequences and the pre-Patton (1970) score by Jerry Goldsmith are the real stars. JG’s battle sequences and main title music are engaging enough to keep the 155-minute film from feeling longer than the war itself.
Shot on location in Ireland, the story and action take place on the German front in the Spring of 1918. During the fighting, the German ace of aces, the well-known Manfred von Richthofen – aka the Red Baron, and alter ego of Snoopy – puts in an appearance. VR is played by Carl Schell, best remembered for his role as Dr. Julian Olcott in Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory (1961).
Back to the real stars. The stunt fliers do an incredible job with the staged fights. In their competition for both Blue Max and countess, two pilots take turns flying under a small bridge ‘mano a mano.’ Stuntman Derek Piggott, now 92, flew both planes. He went under a stone bridge over 20 times to get all the shots for the sequence. They actually put sheep near the bridge in one scene so they could be seen running from the plane’s noise, proving it wasn’t faked.
George Lucas has said that Star Wars’ space fights were inspired by TBM’s dogfight aerial sequences. Peter Jackson became obsessed with TBM and acquired some of the planes, which he restored and flies to this day. Peppard learned to fly and some shots show him actually piloting his plane. And Goldsmith nailed one of the best scores of all time. (The disk isolates the score tracks).
Now on Twilight Time Blu-ray, you can watch TBM on the small screen with a good idea of how it looked on the big screen. Rated 3.8 out of 4.0 reasons that Ursula is hot. Just ask Sean Connery