Every once in a while a movie comes along that you can’t wait to see, but when you finally get to see it, you realize — sigh — that it’s just a movie, and not a very good one at that. “The Red Baron” hit me that way.
Made a couple of years ago, “Der Rote Baron” was supposedly the most expensive film ever made in Germany, and when it was released, it was a tremendous flop. It was hard to figure out why from reviews. The YouTube clips of the flying sequences looked tremendous. Apparently, Germans don’t care much for war movies these days, even those that star a great national hero.
It took from then until now for the film to be released on disk. I tried to pick one up at Suncoast, but the girl there told me tartly that a film like that doesn’t appeal to “their” class of customers. Shrug. Order a copy of “The Red Baron” on Blu-Ray, which arrived promptly. I prepared by previewing Roger Corman’s “Von Richthofen and Brown,” from 1969.
The Red Baron is Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, the highest-scoring ace of the Greta War, with 80 victories, one of the first superstar pilots and a pop-culture icon. He was the terror of the Western Front until he was shot down by either Canadian pilot Roy Brown or a gang of Aussie soldiers on the ground popping off with rifles.
“Von Richthofen and Brown” was a low-budget actioner that contrasted the command styles of the two men, von Richthofen the dashing, titled Prussian; Brown, the dour, common realist. The remaining cast is a rogue’s gallery of famous aviators, including Hermann Goring, Ernst Udet and teenage Werner Voss, von Richthofen’s rival and friend. It is a snapshot of the changing face of warfare, and is largely successful as a movie. But it suffered from its small budget, and the aeroplanes and other details were inaccurate, although likely only us rivet-counters noticed.
Flash-forward to now, with a grand budget and the latest CGI techniques, and “The Red Baron” looks terrific and the aeroplanes are wonderfully accurate. The old gang is here, particularly Voss, although the new movie makes him a grizzled veteran instead of a talented teen. Nikolai Müllerschön, who wrote and directed, also adds a fictional Jewish pilot, although there were plenty of real Jewish pilots in the Fliegerkorps, such as Wilhelm Frankl. It’s an odd political move that smells like apologia.
Both movies, interestingly, make much of the German pilots’ veneration of ace Oswald Boelcke, almost as if he were a religious figure.
Virtually every review of “The Red Baron” points out it fails whilst on the ground, although it soars while in the air. Absolutely true. Taking the audience along in the dreamlike trance of flight is something movies are good at. It’s not only a thrill ride for the audience, it also helps explain the motivations of the pilots.
There are many things that go wrong here. One is the reoccurring figure of Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes) who seems to slip through the Western Front with ease just to have chitchats with von Richthofen. Another is a drummed-up romance with nurse (Lena Headey) that relies on her having abrupt changes of personality in every scene. And it’s storytelling suicide to cheat the audience out of the the two most famous dogfights in the Great War, von Richthofen vs. Brown, and Voss vs. a whole sky full of British SE.5s. These battles, that should have been the cathartic heart of the film, are simply shrugged away.
It also doesn’t help that Matthias Schweighöfer, who plays the title role, is thuddingly void of command charisma. It’s partly the fault of the script, which pushes the image of von Richthofen as a rather sweet, sensitive soul who just happens to kill dozens on men in vicious aerial combat.
The main problem, though, is that Müllerschön just couldn’t decide what his film was about. It needed a tough rewrite from someone who could keep eyes on the prize. Is “The Red Baron” a meditation on the evolving spirit of German martial ardor during the 20th Century? An analysis of the conflict between command and celebrity? A three-way romance between a pilot, his gal and his fighter plane? An engaging bio-pic about someone was once a world-famous figure, and is now a label on a frozen pizza?
This last is the worst. If you’re going to tell the story of a historic character, even if you have to telescope events and personalities, at least get his personality right. Otherwise, it’s literally character assassination. Von Richthofen was a dangerous, wily aerial tactician; a killer; a charismatic leader; a superb manager of public image. That’s an interesting person. This rather damp, twee youngster posing in aviator togs in “The Red Baron” is just playing dress-up.