Von Richthofen and Brown (aka, The Red Baron) (Roger Corman, 1971)
The supremely proud German pilot Manfred Von Richthofen (John Phillip Law), aka, the notorious German Red Baron of World War I lore (for those who only know him as a figment of Charles M Shulz’ Peanuts imagination), takes over command of a squadron, leading daily harrowing fights in the sky against an allied force that includes ace fighter, and Canadian (or ‘half American’, as his fellow British fighters tease), Roy Brown (Don Stroud), a sort of cynical ideological opposite of the Baron, as he takes little honor in the carnage (including refusing to join his put-off fellow pilots in giving a toast from a distance to their German enemies during daily meals). The emotional and physical strain of random death and injury from the daily battles begins to take its toll in both camps, leading to increasing tensions, with even the usually unflappable Baron, struggling with the very real possibility of Germany losing the war, as well as the endless loss of comrades under his command, while also growing disgusted by the callous political machinations with which the higher-ups (who greedily take him under their wings as his fame grows) in command operate, begins to question his own belief in any glory in war.
With Phil Spurrell – he of that Montreal cinematic institution which has been operating for a staggering 26 years at this point, the all-(well, say 98%) celluloid screening Le Cinéclub/The Film Society, having been kind enough to trudge over his projection equipment to the Buck loft space for a 16mm double feature of 70’s works from legendary and brilliant showman genre producers, first up was the odd and creepy mutant-bugs-unleashed-from-the-depths-by-earthquake-and-now-taking-over-the-world horror pic produced and written (his final film) by the king of the theater gimmicks himself, William ‘The Tingler’ Castle, highlighted by great desert locations, a moody score and wonderfully crazed performance by Bradford Dillman (which I already scribbled my thoughts down and posted previously), Bug (1975). Next up, a whole different, though even more powerful in its own right (and definitely classier) affair – namely, Roger Corman’s anti-war epic, Von Richthofen and Brown.
John Phillip Law
With it’s beautifully composed shots (the complex tracking shot of the Baron’s romantic meeting with his eventual bride at a well-to-do military dance is a bit of grandiose camera/actor dance on the level of a Welles), nice construction of the off-duty pilots in-between battles engaging in both internal conflicts and deep friendships, and the simply breathtaking fighting scenes in the sky (though, unfortunately, my understanding is two stuntmen died – and apparently even Stroud was involved in a crash that almost killed him – under the low budget constrictions that required all of the fighting scenes be shot in two weeks), Corman reveals yet again – as he did with his series of lush, stunning and mostly-Vincent-Price-starring Poe films from the 60’s, including the brilliant Masque of the Red Death – what a thoughtful and more-than-competent (I’d say equal if not better than most of his genre peers) film director he was when he put his efforts into it. I don’t know why it’s a surprise to me at this point – perhaps because of the great number of shlock he’s been involved with as a producer, and proudly stands behind, that I occasionally need to be reminded.
I have zero idea on the historical accuracy of the film, but that means little to me anyway (other than recognizing it as a selling point for the producers). What matters more is that “Von Richthofen” stands apart from just about every American war movie in being actually (and impressively) anti-war (unlike Academy Award war movies like Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which are also impressive in many ways, yet ultimately rely on a grotesquely audience-comforting notion, similar to in Spielberg’s war films, that ‘sure, war is hell, but it’s also one hell of a character builder’). What better way to prop up the military complex, after all.
Corman, with his high-flying ace war movie has much more honorable ambitions. He builds a sense of the growing despair and disillusionment each side feels (with the German side treated as fairly and complexly as the allied side, which is another breath of fresh air, further revealing more intelligent daring on the part of Corman) as their warring actions grow more reprehensible (including eventually bombing hospitals). While it could be argued that the underlying tension of the film revolves around the importance of somehow keeping the fighting of war honorable (not exactly the most anti-war of stances), I’d argue that the film, including Corman — and the Baron himself in the film (just before he’s shot down and killed in an almost serenely captured moment where he drifts back to Earth as he dies) — finally come down on there being nothing worthy in war. War breeds monsters, as captured perfectly by having a young, eager and coldly bloodthirsty pilot named Göring (Barry Primus) be the triumphant figure who emerges from the wreckage of the war – yes, the very Hermann Göring who would go on to lead those monsters of World War II known as the Nazis.
I guess one element that could be mentioned as a bit problematic is, similar to the grandiose, ahead-of-its-time underwater fighting scene in the much-bigger budgeted early-James Bond epic Thunderball, while the sky battles are spectacular and really breathtaking to see, it’s hard to always figure out who was who in the planes… and, yet, in this case (unlike in the Bond), that very anonymity in the battles works for the film, as it wasn’t always apparent who died until the squadrons returned to their home fields to face another loss. And there is the scene of Brown, attracted to a gorgeous woman reflected in a farmhouse window in the countryside, only to have her open the door and reveal a leg missing from the war, which is supposed to play out as tragic and, yet, from today’s perspective, ends up falling awkwardly into sexist and physically challenged-phobic (or some such thing) territory (unlike say, in a modern transgressive Bruce LaBruce film, where the presence of stumps would have been an immediate turn-on leading to some hardcore sex).