“The Blue Max” (1966) and “Aces High” (1976) are two movies about WWI air combat. Both are British and filled with dogfights. They both delve into squadron dynamics and the stresses of combat.
“The Blue Max” (from the novel by the same name) is the story of Bruno Stachel’s quest for the Pour le Merite (nicknamed the Blue Max) which was awarded to any pilot who reached 20 victories. Stachel (George Peppard) starts out as modest and ashamed of his lower class origins, but quickly becomes a glory hound intent on upstaging the other upper class officers. When his first kill is unconfirmed, he spends hours in a rainstorm hunting for the wreckage thus establishing a reputation among his comrades and the enmity of his commanding officer Heidemann (Karl Voger). On his second mission, Stachel decides to mend his ways by forcing an observation plane down at the aerodrome. Unfortunately for our chastened hero, the gunner attempts to fire at him prompting Stachel to shoot the plane down in full view of his head-shaking comrades. This is the tipping point for Bruno and from here on, it’s all about the Blue Max.
Stachel develops a rivalry with the squadron’s ace of aces, von Klugerman (Jeremy Kemp). They compete for kills and for the affections of Klugerman’s aunt by marriage and slut by choice, Kaeti (Ursula Andress). Kaeti happens to be married to the clueless General Count Von Klugerman (James Mason). The general is intent on building Stachel into a propaganda poster boy. He does not care that some of his victories are disputed.
At one point, Stachel rescues the Red Baron. The love triangle loses a leg when Klugerman takes a dare from Stachel about flying under a bridge. He defeats the bridge, but not a tree. Stachel returns to base with the bad news and the good news that he has acquired two more kills (actually shot down by Klugerman). Heidemann knows he’s lying and the last straw is when Stachel disobeys orders and leads the squadron in a strafing run that results in losing half the pilots. Heidemann resigns in protest when the General refuses to give up his poster boy.
Stachel finally gets the Blue Max, but the General finds about his affair with his wife when Kaeti apparently rats him out because he refuses to elope with her. The general orders Stachel to test-fly a new prototype that is obviously a death trap. The general encourages him to do lots of aerobatics.
“Aces High” is based on the play “Journey’s End” by R.C. Sherriff. The main character is a hardened, alcoholic veteran named Gresham (Malcolm McDowell). He is perturbed when his classmate and boyfriend of his sister arrives all sparkly and enthusiastic. Croft (Peter Firth) is introduced to the fatherly, aristocratic “Uncle” Sinclair (Christopher Plummer) and the bitterly cynical coward Crawford (Simon Ward). Crawford is suffering from “neuralgia” and refuses to fly.
The movie covers one action packed week. Croft’s learning curve is steep. On his first mission, he is saved by Gresham after being bounced from behind. Croft gets lost and makes a shaky landing to ask for directions. That night they party with a captured German pilot. Later, Croft and Uncle go on a dangerous reconnaissance mission. Uncle is killed. Another mission is against enemy balloons which results in a huge dogfight. Croft gets his first kill and soon after dies in a midair collision. Only Gresham returns alive. Three fresh young Fokker fodder arrive as replacements.
Both movies have their strengths. Each has some excellent aerial combat which is fairly realistic. They use real planes – either other planes masquerading or replicas. The stunt work is well done. There is no CGI. “The Blue Max” gets the edge here partly because Peppard did some of his own flying and because it includes the flying under the bridge scene done by stunt pilot Derek Piggott in numerous takes. Some of the footage from “The Blue Max” was used in “Aces High”. “Aces” does have more quantity of air combat, however.
The themes differ. “Max” concentrates on how the quest for glory corrupts and how the military-industrial complex misuses soldiers. “Aces” concentrates on how the stress of combat effects pilots. It also traces the evolution of pilots from green to veteran, if they survive long enough.
The acting is much better in “Max” than “Aces”. “Max” is more of an actors’ movie because several of the characters are despicable – Stachel, Kaeti, and the General. The coupling of Bruno and Kaeti is one of two narcissists. Von Klugerman is your stock WWI politician/general. In “Aces” the stereotypes abound, McDowell as the jaded commander, Plummer as the stiff upper –lipped executive, Ward as the naïve rookie, and Crawford embarrasses himself as the cuckoo coward.
Both are fairly realistic on life in the air force of WWI. “Max” concentrates on the selfish win-at-all-costs mentality of many of the aces, including Richtofen. “Aces” deals more with the camaraderie. There is an “eat, drink, and be merry” atmosphere between missions. There is lots of singing by the piano and a trip to a French night club where the women are easy (more stereotyping).
“Aces High” and “The Blue Max” are must sees for air combat buffs, but are not in the front rank of war movies. “Max” is the better of the two with its advantages of plot, acting, and production values. Also, Ursula Andress gets naked. However, “Aces” probably does a better job depicting what WWI air combat was like.
“The Blue Max” - 7/10
“Aces High” - 5/10