Wednesday, June 24, 2015

CRACKER? Von Richthofen and Brown (1971)

                “Von Richthofen and Brown” was another recent participant in my Best Dogfighting Movie tournament.  It did surprisingly well for a movie that is not very well known.  It was Roger Corman’s  attempt to go beyond his B-movie / cult movie reputation.  He had a much bigger budget than for films like “Bloody Mama” and Gas-s-s-s”.  It was his second war movie after the classic “The Secret Invasion”.  Unfortunately, his experience in the filming of “Von Richthofen and Brown” resulted in his directing only two more films in the next 37 years.

                The recently arrived Von Richthofen (John Phillip Law) arrives at his squadron and has a rough landing.  He then proceeds to show his mindset by rushing to take a souvenir from his first kill.  He has trophies made for each subsequent victory.  Pilot obsessed with glory – check!  Von Richthofen meets the famous Oswald Boelcke who advises him to come from out of the sun, get in close, don’t waste ammunition, and only fight if you have an advantage.  Soon the Red Baron has ten kills and is fast becoming a celebrity.  Meanwhile, Roy Brown (Don Stroud) has arrived at his RAF squadron where he makes an immediate impression by refusing to join in a toast to Von Richthofen.  He does not believe in that chivalric bull shit.  He is a modern warrior.  “I’m just a technician, I change things.  Put a plane in front of me with a man in it – I change him into a wreck and a corpse.”  He is also a cynic.  When asked “who’s next?”, he responds “we’re all next”.  Somehow Brown bullies his way to leadership and has his squadron hunt in packs with a plane as bait.  These two main characters are bound to duel.  The Knight of the Air versus the Hunter of the Sky.
Don Stroud don't give a damn about his hair

                The movie is a roller coaster ride of scenes that are either entertaining or farcical.  The entertaining ones include Von Richthofen’s  encounter with the British ace Hawker and the climactic duel with Brown.  In between we get the Red Baron crashing in no man’s land so we can get a small-scale fire fight and not one but two attacks on air fields.  This being a Roger Corman film, there is a truly ludicrous moment when Fokker shows off his new plane while a hottie caresses it and he speaks in sexual innuendo!  This is a fun movie if you are in the right mood.

                Corman made no claims to historical accuracy and it’s a good thing he didn’t.  In spite of that, there is a smidgen of accuracy to be found here.  The Red Baron did replace Boelcke, but did not contribute to his death.  He did shoot down Hawker, but not in spite of the Brit motioning that he was out of ammo.   He did collect silver cups and his combat tactics are pretty close to his philosophy.  The script inserts Herman Goring as the villainous counterpoint to Von Richthofen when actually he did not join the Flying Circus until after the Baron’s death.  At one point, Goring actually argues that it is okay to strafe nurses and even “gas them”!  On the other hand, the Brown character is almost totally fictional.  He was not in the RAF.  He was in the Royal Canadian Air Force.  Instead of being a jerk, he was a well-respected squadron commander who insisted his charges be well-trained before seeing combat.   As far as the final duel, the movie basically sticks to the official version that credits Brown with the death of the Red Baron.  Most authorities feel Von Richthofen was actually killed by a bullet from an Australian anti-aircraft gun.  It is not surprising that the movie does not show that version.
Law did some of his own flying -
just like in "Barbarella"

                It is hard to get a hold on this movie.  “Directed by Roger Corman” sends a signal that the movie should be inferior to most war movies.  However, VR&B is definitely not your typical Corman movie.  It was a labor of love for him and he went all out on it with a much larger budget than he had ever had before.  This started with the purchasing of most of the aircraft used in “The Blue Max”.  VR&B used twelve planes including replica Pfalz DIIIs,  S.E. 5s, Fokker D.VIIs, and Fokker Dr.Is.  It’s a very nice line-up for a glorified B-movie like this.  The planes do not just sit at the airfield.  The movie has a large amount of dogfighting in it – 24 minutes.  That quantity is the most of any of the sixteen movies in the dogfighting tournament.  The quality is fairly high.  There are fine acrobatics by the stunt pilots, one of whom was killed.  Stroud and Law learned the rudiments of flying and they were filmed in the back seats as though flying.  Unfortunately, although the cinematography is well done, it is repetitive.  We get a lot of pilot’s faces, guns firing, and the use of smoke trails to indicate a plane has lost the battle.

                While the film deserves an A for effort and a B for dogfighting, it is inferior in all other areas.  The acting is wooden from the B-list cast.  Law was a poor choice for Von Richthofen, but Stroud does bring charisma to his role.  Still, we are talking about Don Stroud here.  The actors are not helped by the dialogue which is stilted and pious.  They are also placed in some ridiculous scenarios like the German attack on the British airfield while they are celebrating their attack on the German air field.  It does result in numerous cool explosions (from fighter planes bereft of bombs). 

                Does it crack the 100 Best War Movies of all time?  No way, but it is a nice time waster if you don’t invest any brain cells in it.  Make sure you do not watch it to get the true story of the death of the Red Baron.



  1. Yes, John Philip Law doesn't work as Von Richthofen. Law is 6-5 and the Baron was 5-7 or 5-8.

    1. To tell the truth, I really do not care whether an actor looks like the character they portray. I do think it is important that the actor is better at acting than the subject. Not the case with Law. BTW height differential is not as distracting as Law being quite a bit more handsome.

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