In contrast to films that romanticize the Flying Aces of the Great War, the protagonist of The Blue Max is depicted as a man with no conscience, no empathy, and no feelings for anyone but himself. The film also explores the decline of chivalry and the advent of total war.
German Corporal Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) leaves the fighting in the trenches to become an officer and fighter pilot in the German Army Air Service. Joining a squadron in spring 1918, he sets his sights on winning Germany's highest medal for valor, the Blue Max, for which he must shoot down 20 aircraft.
Of middle class origins, Lieutenant Bruno Stachel considers himself better than the aristocratic pilots in his new fighter squadron and sets out to prove it. Meanwhile, Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp), takes him under his wing. Their commanding officer, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler) is an aristocratic officer whose belief in chivalry and the laws and customs of war conflict with Stachel's contempt for them.
On his first mission, Stachel, in a Pfalz D.III, shoots down a British S.E.5, but does not receive credit for his "kill" because there were no witnesses. Stachel searches the countryside for the wreckage, giving the impression that he cares more about himself than the combat death of a comrade in arms.
Soon afterwards, he attacks an Allied two-man observation aircraft, incapacitating the rear gunner. Instead of downing the defenseless aircraft, he signals the pilot to fly to the German base. As they near the airfield, the wounded rear gunner revives and reaches for his machine-gun, unseen by the admiring observers on the ground. Stachel is forced to shoot the aircraft down. Afterwards, a disgusted Heidemann believes Stachel has committed a war crime just to gain a confirmed kill.
The incident brings Stachel to the attention of General Count von Klugermann (James Mason), Willi's uncle. When the General comes to the base to award his nephew the Blue Max, he meets Stachel. As Stachel is a commoner, the General sees great propaganda potential in him. Meanwhile, Kaeti (Ursula Andress), the general's wife, is carrying on a discreet affair with her husband's nephew.
Soon afterwards, Stachel is shot down after rescuing a red Fokker Dr.I triplane fighter plane from two British fighters. When he returns to the airfield, he is stunned when he is introduced to the man he saved: Manfred von Richthofen (Carl Schell) - the Red Baron. Richthofen offers Stachel a place in his squadron, which Stachel declines, explaining his desire to "prove himself" with his current squadron.
With Stachel temporarily grounded owing to a minor injury, General von Klugermann orders him to Berlin to help shore up crumbling public morale. Kaeti takes the opportunity to sleep with her latest hero. Upon his return, Stachel taunts an outraged Willi with the news.
Soon after, Stachel and Willi volunteer to escort a reconnaissance aircraft. British fighters attack their Fokker Dr. 1 triplanes. Stachel's guns jam, but Willi downs three Allied planes and the rest disengage. As the two return to their base, Willi challenges Stachel, partly by executing a near-perfect barrel roll to return in formation with Stachel. Spotting a bridge, Willi dives under the wide middle span, but Stachel tops him by flying under a much narrower side one. Seething, Willi does the same, but, by not looking where he is going, clips the top of a tower afterwards and crashes fatally. When Stachel reports his death, Heidemann assumes that the two verified victories were Willi's. Insulted, Stachel impulsively claims them, even though he only fired 40 bullets before his guns jammed. Outraged, Heidemann reports to Berlin and accuses Stachel of lying. Yet the Air Service takes Stachel's word for it. Later, alone with Kaeti, Stachel admits he lied.
During a strafing mission covering the retreat of the Imperial German Army, Stachel disobeys orders not to engage enemy fighters. One by one, the rest of the squadron follow him. Afterwards, Heidemann confronts him with the fact that half the squadron was killed in the ensuing dogfight, yet Stachel cares only that he has shot down enough aircraft, even without Willi's kills, to qualify for the Blue Max. Enraged, Heidemann submits a report recommending court martial proceedings.
The two men are ordered to Berlin. There, von Klugermann tells Heidemann that Stachel is to receive the Blue Max. Explaining that the people need a hero, he orders Heidemann to withdraw his report. Germany is, he says, waging total war against Allied soldiers and civilians and Stachel is the perfect hero for modern warfare. Sickened, Heidemann resigns his command and accepts a desk job.
Later that evening, the Countess visits Stachel and suggests that they elope to neutral Switzerland since Allied victory is inevitable. When he declines, she says that she knows Field Marshal von Lenndorf, whom Stachel had already met when seeing in a wind tunnel a model of an upcoming monoplane whose flying characteristics are reported by General von Klugermann as 'risky', and can get him a transfer out of harm's way. Kaeti storms out when Stachel refuses to give up combat flying.
The next day, Stachel is awarded the Blue Max by the Crown Prince (Roger Ostime) in a well-publicized ceremony. However, an enraged Field Marshal von Lenndorf telephones von Klugermann and orders him to stop the ceremony, though the General informs him that this is impossible. An investigation has been opened into Stachel's false claim. The General asks how the Field Marshal found out. While listening on the phone, he turns to his wife and realizes that she had provided von Lenndorf with Stachel's confession.
When Heidemann reports that the new monoplane he has just test-flown is a "death trap", with weak struts, von Klugermann sees a way to avoid a scandal that would otherwise harm the war effort and the officer corps as well as destroy his own career. He tells Stachel, "Let's see some real flying." Heidemann is shocked to see the aircraft leaving the tarmac, but is unable to stop it in time. He silently observes the General calmly watching from the office window. After several minutes, the stress of Stachel's aerobatics causes the aircraft to break up and plunge to the ground. Just before it hits the ground and explodes, von Klugermann rubber-stamps and signs Stachel's personnel file and says to his aide, Holbach (Anton Diffring), "Give this to the Field Marshal. It is the personal file of a German officer... and a hero." After Holbach leaves, the General tell his wife coldly that they "will be late for lunch", implying that she keep silent.
Outside, Captain Heidemann eyes von Klugermann with horror, but then recalls that he is in the presence of a superior officer and salutes. The General and the Countess are driven away in a staff car while the smoke from Stachel's burning aircraft rises in the background.
Cast notes: The casting of George Peppard in the mainly international ensemble cast was considered a "safe" choice, as he was establishing a reputation for leading roles in action films. Although youthful looking, at 37 years of age, he was much older than the Stachel depicted in the novel. Peppard wanted to create an "authentic" performance and learned to fly, earned a private pilot's license and did some of his own flying in the film, although stunt pilot Derek Pigott was at the controls for the under-the-bridge scene.
The film differs from the book on which it is based both in the plot and the portrayal of the characters. Some of the differences are:
Stachel: The movie portrays Stachel initially as an idealistic, humble, and naive man who evolves into someone willing to do whatever it takes to get his way. He is also depicted as being insecure about his lower-class background and desires to prove himself an equal aviator and man to the aristocrats by earning the Blue Max. The vain attempt by Stachel to confirm his first kill is only found in the film. There is also no confrontation with Heidemann who takes a swift dislike to Stachel over claiming aircraft that Willi had shot down.
Stachel was played by a 37-year-old George Peppard, in stark contrast to the 19-year-old character of the novel. From the beginning of the novel, Stachel is a deeply troubled alcoholic with a penchant for lying. Obsessed with earning the last of the new Fokker D.VIIs, he kills Willi to obtain it. In the novel Heidemann exhibits an immediate favouritism toward the newcomer, and credits Stachel with his first victories while Kettering, the squadron adjutant, refuses to comply until Heidemann orders him to do so.
At the end of the novel, Heidemann reveals that he has been secretly boosting Stachel's achievements as part of an experiment in publicity management. Stachel earns his Blue Max not from 20 victories, but by destroying three aircraft and capturing one after Heidemann's guns jam. (Stachel is so drunk, he cannot even recall the engagement.) He is also honoured for saving the life of a French girl who falls into a river. Stachel does not die in the book, and in fact meets the future commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, then-Hauptmann Hermann Göring. Stachel marries Kaeti von Klugermann after the death of Graf von Klugermann, as noted at the beginning of The Blood Order, the second book in Jack Hunter's Stachel series.
Hauptmann Heidemann: Heidemann's deep longing to be with his wife and her growing depression over his absence are more subtle in the movie than in the book. In the novel, Heidemann does not accuse Stachel of brutaily in the shooting down of the British aircraft over their airfield. He regards Stachel as the best pilot in the Jasta after himself, and has already planned to assign Stachel one of the new Fokker D.VIIs. In the novel, Heidemann (not General von Klugermann) is the one who recognises the propaganda value of building Stachel up into a hero and uses this as a means to get himself reassigned to Berlin, to be near his wife.
Willi von Klugermann: Willi is described as a "fat aristocrat" in the book who has only one victory more than Stachel. In the film, Willi is leaner, more arrogant and competitive and earns a Blue Max shortly after Stachel's arrival. In the book, Willi regards Stachel as a close friend, and his affair with Kaeti is revealed only after his death when Stachel reads his journal. Unlike the movie, they are never rivals for her affection. In the novel, Willi is murdered by Stachel to obtain the last of the five new Fokker D VIIs allotted to the squadron. In the movie, Willi is accidentally killed in an aerial competition with Stachel over who is the better pilot.
General von Klugermann: In the movie, the count is a career General-Oberst in the German Army. In the novel, his title is Graf and he is a famous surgeon who has researched alcoholism and other addictions. Unlike the film, the Graf and Gräfin do not have an open marriage. In the film, General von Klugermann recognises the social turmoil erupting in Germany and presents Stachel as a lower-class hero. Doctor von Klugermann, an aristocrat, recognises the unfair nature of Germany's class system – something he disapproves of, but makes no effort to change.
Käti von Klugermann: Kaeti's character in the book and film are similar. The Gräfin, comes from the lower classes, but relishes her status and wealth. Both characters deftly employ sexuality to get what they want. In the book, while drunk, Stachel extorts money from Käti with his knowledge of her affair with Willi. Later, she blackmails Stachel to marry her by threatening to reveal his murder of Willi and two British pilots. In the film, she proposes that Stachel run away with her to Switzerland, something he refuses to do. For this slight, she exposes Stachel's lies. Her husband, the General, then sends Stachel to his death in an unstable aircraft to preserve the honour of the officer corps.
Elfi Heidemann: In both the novel and the film, Elfi is a nurse stationed in Berlin. In the book, Elfi is an alcoholic who overcomes her addiction with the assistance of Doctor von Klugermann. Stachel recognises Elfi as his kindred spirit, and after Heidemann's death, seeks to form a relationship with her. Käti literally stops him at Elfi's door, forcing Stachel to marry her instead. Stachel ruefully accepts his fate to return to Käti and alcoholism.
Corporal Rupp: Rupp has only a minor role in the movie. In the novel, he is an Unteroffizier and thoroughly distasteful character, whom Stachel describes as "a pig of a man". He earns extra money by smuggling cheap booze to Stachel, and using one of the squadron's reconnaissance cameras to take pornographic pictures for Kettering's extensive collection of erotica. In the end, it is Rupp who provides Kaeti with evidence that implicates Stachel in Willi's murder.
Conclusion: In the movie, Heidemann flies the monoplane first and determines that it is a "death trap" because the struts are too weak for the wing loading. General von Klugermann then sends Stachel to his death to shield the German Officer Corps from the shame of Stachel's false claim of two victories. In the novel, it is Stachel who tries out the new monoplane, finds the defect, and then allows Heidemann to fly the aircraft. Before Heidemann takes off, Stachel tries to stop him to save his life; however, Heidemann continues and dies. Hunter's novel ends with Stachel meeting a young Hermann Göring, who has assumed command of the vaunted "Flying Circus" after the death of its commander, Manfred von Richthofen.
The majority of the aircraft used in the film were converted Tiger Moths and Stampe SV.4s. Two Pfalz D.IIIs were produced (by two separate companies) for the film, along with three Fokker D.VIIs and two Fokker Dr.I triplanes. Other German aircraft were represented by repainted Tiger Moths and Stampes. The British aircraft were similarly mocked-up trainers made into British S.E.5s. The German lozenge camouflage was not universal to all units at the time the story takes place (Spring 1918), but, in the film, aircraft of all German units are shown in this scheme.
The Fokker Dr.I triplanes are purpose-built replicas. The Tiger Moth silhouette was more appropriate to British aircraft of the period, such as the S.E.5a (one of which Stachel shoots down during his first mission) and presents a good general impression of actual contemporary aircraft.
The "death-trap" monoplane at the end of the film, known as the "Adler" (German for eagle) in the novel, may have been inspired by the Fokker E.V, which was a late-war monoplane design which did indeed rapidly gather a reputation for poor construction of the wing, resulting in several crashes before being modified and re-designated the Fokker D.VIII. In the film it is portrayed by Patrick Lindsay's Morane 230 Parasol trainer, with a faired-over front seat to simulate a monoplane fighter visually.
The depictions of aerial combat in the film are particularly realistic. The aircraft ground scenes were shot at Weston Aerodrome near Dublin (which should not to be confused with RAF Weston-on-the-Green, England).
Pilots from the Irish Air Corps helped recreate the live dog-fight scenes, supported by number of civilians, including Charles Boddington and Derek Piggott. Piggott was the only pilot willing to fly beneath the spans of a bridge. Taking the role of both German pilots and with multiple takes from contrasting camera angles, he ended up flying 15 times under the wide span of the Carrickabrack Railway Viaduct in Fermoy, County Cork, Ireland, and 17 times under the narrower span. The two Fokker Dr.I triplane replicas had about four feet (1.3 m) of clearance on each side when passing through the narrower span. He was able to fly through the arch reliably by aligning two scaffolding poles, one in the river and one on the far bank. Just before the scenes of flying beneath the bridge, one of the Triplanes executes what could be considered a near-perfect barrel roll as seen from aft of the two Dr.Is used for the scene. Off screen, actor George Peppard flew one of the Pfalz used in the movie.
The director had placed a flock of sheep next to the bridge so that they would scatter as the aircraft approached to show that the stunt was real and not simulated with models. However, by later takes, the sheep had become accustomed to the aircraft, and had to be scared by the shepherd instead. In the printed take, the sheep continued to graze, creating a continuity error which can be seen in the finished film.
The entire collection of aircraft, uniforms and supporting equipment was purchased from 20th Century Fox by ex-Royal Canadian Air Force pilot Lynn Garrison. He kept the collection together in Ireland under his company, Blue Max Aviation, Ltd. Over the following years they played a part in You Can't Win 'Em All, Darling Lili, Zeppelin, Von Richthofen and Brown, and various television commercials, including a classic Ridley Scott production promoting Opel's limited edition "Blue Max." Both of the Pfalz replicas and one Fokker D.VII now belong to New Zealand film director Peter Jackson's 1914–18 Trust, with the Viv Bellamy-designed Pfalz now being on display at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in New Zealand. All three aircraft are kept in fully airworthy condition. Another of the Fokker D.VII's is on display at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama.
The scenes where the Germans come into the French village were filmed on Calary Bog in County Wicklow, Ireland. For many weeks, the building of the village attracted the locals to watch it coming up. Then it was bombed and made to look destroyed. It was a local tourist attraction for a long time after the film had wrapped.
The Berlin scenes were shot in Dublin. Christ Church Cathedral and Leinster House, the seat of the Oireachtas, the Irish national parliament, are easily recognisable in the background of many scenes and Trinity College served as the army headquarters where von Klugermann's office is located.
Many of the flying scenes were shot at Weston Aerodrome (EIWT) near Lucan, Ireland, about 10 miles west of Dublin hence the name confusion with Weston-on-the-Green. Weston Aerodrome is also home to the National Flight Center. There is also a restaurant named after the movie at the Aerodrome. The final scene where Stachel meets his fate was filmed at Baldonnel, the Irish Air Corps' main base. The hangars seen in the movie were built for the Royal Air Force in 1918.
The Carrickabrack Viaduct in Fermoy, Co. Cork was used for the scenes where Stachel and Von Klugermann flew several times under the railway bridge. The view from the 19th century railway bridge which spans the River Blackwater is spectacular and it was one of the reasons the producers of The Blue Max chose it as one of the locations for the film. The railway line linked Mallow, Co.Cork to Waterford City. In 1967 the railway line was closed by CIÉ.
In an article entitled "About The Blue Max" the author, Jack D. Hunter, wrote:
The producers chose Jerry Goldsmith to compose the score after offering the job to Ron Goodwin who was working on another score. With Goldsmith, they requested a Germanic composition. Goldsmith was even introduced to the project with scenes incorporating a "temp track" from Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. Goldsmith said of this experience "I admit it worked fairly well but my first reaction was to get up and walk away from the job. Once you've heard music like that with the picture, it makes your own scoring more difficult to arrive at."
Goldsmith used a large orchestra, some cues requiring over 100 musicians, with large brass and percussion sections as well as a wind machine. On 4 April 1966, he conducted the soundtrack with the National Philharmonic Orchestra led by Sidney Sax at Shepperton Studios in London. These recordings were released on LP by Mainstream Records in 1966, and re-released on LP by Citadel Records in 1976. The soundtrack was released on CD by Varèse Sarabande in 1985 and by Sony in 1995 (with seven cues of source music from the movie arranged by Arthur Morton). The score was once again released, this time complete and in correct film order with accurate track listings, by speciality-label Intrada in 2010.
André Previn chose an extended passacaglia from the score to perform on his television program Previn and the Pittsburgh in 1978 on the episode "Music that Made the Movies".
Five tracks of music from the film ("Overture", "First Flight", "The Bridge", "The Attack" and "Finale") were recorded on 11 March 1987, at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, and are incorporated as Tracks 1–5 into the CD, Goldsmith Conducts Goldsmith, played by the Philharmonia Orchestra and subsequently released by Silva Screen Records in 2002 (FILMCD336), though it had been originally released in 1989 by the Decca Record Co. Ltd./Filmtrax plc.
Although The Blue Max was seen as a quasi-historical account, some critics decried what they considered an intrusive sub-plot tying a World War I story into the "modern theme of the corruption of the military-industrial complex." Even though the music and the flying scenes were considered the film's redemption, some aviation observers criticized what they thought was a wooden characterisation by Peppard's performance of a dog-fighting combat pilot from military aviation's heroic age.
The Blue Max was a financial success at the box office, earning $5 million in North American rentals in 1966. Director Peter Jackson lists the film as one of the top six World War I movies.