Gefreiter Bruno Stachel is an ordinary German soldier, stumbling through the mud and gore of the Western Front in 1916. He stumbles flat on his face in the mud. Looking up, liberally covered in what he hopes is only mud, he hears a strange insistent noise. He looks up further and sees an aeroplane overhead. He watches for a while. A new idea is forming in his head...
This is the opening of the 1966 war film The Blue Max, directed by John Guillermin and starring George Peppard, Ursula Andress, and James Mason. It follows Stachel (Peppard) through his being accepted for the Imperial German Air Service, commissioned as an officer, and his becoming an Ace in the air battles of World War I. On the way, the ex-ranker with few social connections discovers the stifling nature of the German class system, and he comes to loathe the condescension of other pilots who can put "von" in front of their names and look down on the ex-landser corporal.
He becomes a ruthless killer and a rebel against the system, craving a cleaner Germany which is not so class-bound, and unified in a cause that will benefit all its people, not just the privileged Junkers class. His personal odyssey leads him through von Richtofen's flying circus, to an affair with the cynical and amoral Countess Kaeti von Klugemann (Andress), and eventually his needless death in an air crash engineered by Kaeti's husband (Mason).
The film is rightly renowned for its effects and air-fighting scenes, and it remains a classic of its type.
The movie was based on the novel of the same name by Jack D. Hunter. There are significant differences between the novel and the film. Stachel dies at the end of the movie testing a highly defective experimental aircraft. He is led to believe by an even bigger bastard that the plane is safe to fly, and encouraged to stunt it and throw it around the sky a little bit. In the novel, the roles are reversed and he deliberately disposes of a rival by encouraging him to fly the plane. The scene then shifts to the immediate post-war era. Here he has a chance meeting with a dissillusioned fighter ace called Hermann Goering, who recognises a kindred spirit. Goering belongs to an obscure fringe political party. He makes a point of telling Stachel it is led by a charismatic man, an ex-corporal like Stachel himself. Pondering a secure political future married to the nurse Elfi - his true love - he meets Countess Kaeti again. She has other plans for him.
This film contains examples of the following:
- Ace Pilot: Stachel. Also a bit player called Manfred von Richtofen.
- Aerial Canyon Chase: When Stachel chases down a British plane into a winding narrow valley.
- The Alleged Aircraft: The Adler, a dangerously defective aircraft even by WW1 standards.
- Artifact of Attraction: The Blue Max.
- Artifact of Doom: The Blue Max.
- Artistic License Military: All German pilots are wearing uniforms inspired by the Manfred von Richthofen's uniform of the 1st Prussian Uhlan Regiment. Also, the German aircraft are sporting the cross pattée (curve-sided cross) insignias, even in the period for which these were no longer correct.
- Bling of War: The coveted Blue Max medal ribbon.
- Crisis Point Hospital: Bruno is taken to a room in a hospital in Berlin for a photo op; however, thanks to the current intensity of the war, the hospital is packed to bursting point with casualties: there are patients being operated on in hallways and waiting rooms, several of them without anaesthesia and what look to be fairly basic levels of care. It's so crowded that Bruno can barely get in, and he apologizes to the nurse in attendance for taking up an entire room and her time.
- Jerkass: Pretty much the entire cast, except Hauptmann Heidemann. Stachel is has a chip on his shoulder about being lower-class, and so begins doing increasingly selfish and amoral things to advance his position in the German Air Force. Willi is an elitist who resents having a commoner like Stachel as a rival. Kaeti is cheating on her husband with both Willi and Stachel, and betrays the latter after he insults her. Finally, General Count von Klugemann is a callous manipulator who tolerates all of Stachel's bastardry in order to use him for propaganda purposes as a "hero of the people", only to eventually betray and murder him.
- MacGuffin: The Blue Max, the pursuit of which drives Stachel to ever-greater heights of bastardry.
- Manipulative Bastard: Stachel. When a fellow officer dies after crashing in a chicken contest with Stachel (they took turns flying under a low bridge), Stachel takes credit for downing two enemy aircraft the fellow officer shot down. He is, however, out-manipulated by the Count von Klugemann, Countess Kaeti's cuckolded husband, who claims the Adler is safe to fly, knowing it to be a death-trap. Stachel duly flies the defective machine and crashes to his death.
- Modesty Towel / Nipple and Dimed: Kaeti at one point is seen topless, with only a strategically-placed towel covering her breasts.
- Officer and a Gentleman: Stachel is the first, but not the second, in the eyes of his fellow fliers.
- Orchestral Bombing: Jerry Goldsmith's epic score for this film; highlighted with the cue, TheAttack.
- Post-Injury Desk Job: Kettering is the squadron adjutant, doing paperwork back at the base ("I fly a desk now") after being hit in the leg with antiaircraft fire.
- Red Baron: von Richtofen himself is a supporting player.
- Red-plica Baron: The actual Red Baron is mentioned by Stachel as a pilot he looks up to, and then later in the film shows up as a pilot that Stachel saved from getting shot down. He offers Stachel the chance to transfer to his elite squadron, but Stachel chooses to remain with the squadron he is currently serving in because he doesn't want to be overshadowed.
- Ungrateful Bastard: Stachel in the eyes of the commanding officer who nurtures and protects him and tolerates his more...dubious behavior.
- Up Through the Ranks: Bruno Stachel begins as an ordinary grunt in the German Army, who one day looks up from the Western Front mud, sees a plane overhead, and has an epiphany. Accepted for the Imperial Air Service, he is commissioned as an officer pilot, and learns to his disillusionment that an ex-private who cannot put a "von" in front of his name is the lowest form of life in the Kaiser's armed forces.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Stachel in the eyes of the German public after winning the Blue Max.
This novel contains differences from the film and examples of the following:
- The Alcoholic: Stachel. And Elfi.
- Bastard Bastard: Stachel. He deliberately kills the fellow officer who could betray his fatal flaw and ungentlemanly conduct - even though this officer idolises him. He makes the death look like a flying accident. Later he kills again by sending another inconvenient obstacle up in an experimental aircraft which he has test-flown and knows to be a death-trap.
- "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: The Countess turns the tables on him by threatening to release evidence of one of his murders.
- Those Wacky Nazis: Hermann Goering.