Blu-ray Review: The Blue Max - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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“There was no quiet on the Western Front!” So trumpets the poster for the 1966 War World I epic The Blue Max, directed by John Guillermin. Now available on Blu-ray as a limited edition (only 3,000 copies issued) from Twilight Time, it’s a lengthy but often very exciting action-oriented film. Those not already well-versed in WWI history, fear not. Max is something of a character study, focused squarely on German pilot Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) and his relentless drive to earn the coveted Pour le Mérite, aka the “Blue Max.” That particular decoration is awarded only to those who log at least 20 confirmed kills. Ideally, this goal is achieved merely as a byproduct of serving one’s country. For Stachel, it’s a kind of twisted game, pursued with an obsessive sense of self-glorifying purpose.

Classism is a strong subtext that runs through The Blue Max, with Stachel as the scrappy commoner who manages to slot himself into an elite group of privileged German fliers. In fact, his very presence in the squad is something of a political move by General Count von Klugermann (James Mason). He sees Stachel as a sort of people’s hero, despite the fact that Stachel seems to care about nothing aside from proving himself worthy of the Blue Max. His ambitions are laid bare when his first enemy kill as part of the squadron has no witness, therefore goes uncounted toward his 20-kill goal. But for Klugermann, whose Countess Kaeti (Ursula Andress) becomes romantically entangled with Statchel, his showy, determined pilot is an invaluable tool for shoring up public support for the war.

Blue Max cover TMR.jpgAs Stachel’s tactics become embroiled in controversy, it becomes increasingly clear that at the center of The Blue Max is a scoundrel rather than a hero. Peppard does a good job of maintaining an icy persona, though his rounded American accent doesn’t jive well with the setting. Though it never struck me before about any of his other performances (definitely not his signature role as Hannibal in TV’s The A-Team), here the relatively youthful Peppard comes off—in both tone and temperament—a lot like Stephen Collins. It’s rather uncanny, like seeing Reverend Eric Camden reborn as a ruthless German fighter pilot. Fully committed to the role, Peppard earned his pilot’s license and even did some of his own flying for the sake of authenticity. The aerial footage is thrilling, despite a bit of now-clumsy (and unavoidable) rear-screen effects.

The Blue Max looks like a million bucks in its 1080p transfer, framed at 2.35:1. Douglas Slocombe (who turned an amazing 101 years old last month, February 10) was the cinematographer who shot Max. The highly decorated filmmaker was nominated for three Academy Awards and shot the first three Indiana Jones movies. His work here is honored by a transfer that renews the beauty of the Irish locations that subbed for France and Germany. The many optical shot required for the flying sequence show their age, but that’s no fault of the transfer itself.

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is immersive when it needs to be (the aerial battle scenes) and appropriately subtle during talkier stretches. Jerry Goldsmith’s soaring music provides many sonic highlights as well, but I was most surprised at how robust the action scenes sound. Really there’s just an amazing job on display here, both from a video and audio standpoint.

Blue Max 1 TMR.jpgAn interesting variation on the isolated score track (customary for Twilight Time releases) is offered in the supplements. We do get Goldsmith’s complete score as an isolated track in DTS-HD MA 2.0. On the greatly appreciated commentary track, we not only hear discussion by music expert Jon Burlingame and Twilight Time team members Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo, we’re also treated to some alternate, unused Goldsmith cues. While the commentary is music-centric, there are plenty of other general comments about the film. Kirgo also penned the typically thoughtful essay for the Blu-ray booklet.

As with all titles in Twilight Time’s Limited Edition series, once the initially 3,000-copy run is sold out, they’re gone. Those interested in this incisive WWI drama should head to Screen Archives for ordering information while supplies last.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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