Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Red Baron

I’ve written here before about my fondness for World War I aviation movies (I think I’m the only one who loves the movie FLYBOYS, predictable though it may be). So naturally I had to watch THE RED BARON, a biopic of sorts about Baron Manfred von Richtofen. I say “of sorts” because it basically just covers the war, although it touches on von Richtofen’s childhood and family life.

Even though it was made in 2008, THE RED BARON indulges in the sort of historical fictionalization I associate more with Hollywood epics of the Thirties and Forties. The viewer gets to know some of the members of von Richtofen’s Flying Circus, and most of that seems to be fairly historically accurate, if a little soap-operatic at times. It’s with von Richtofen himself that the filmmakers play fast and loose, turning him into a matinee idol hero who romances a French nurse and forms a friendship with Canadian pilot Captain Roy Brown by saving his life when Brown crashes during a battle. Later, in another dogfight, Brown cripples von Richtofen’s plane and forces him to land, so Brown lands, too, and they stand around in a field philosophizing about war. Ironic as hell for the viewer who knows


that eventually Brown will be credited with shooting down von Richtofen (although later research indicates that von Richtofen was probably killed by machine gun fire from a battery manned by Australian soldiers). Unfortunately, as far as I know von Richtofen and Brown never met in real life.

But hey, it’s a movie, and historical quibbles aside, here’s what you want to know: it’s a pretty entertaining one. The dogfights and aerial sequences look great. So good, in fact, that I suspect there was a lot of CGI involved. The acting is fine, the script moves right along, and I enjoyed it. If you’re a fan of World War I aviation movies, it’s definitely worth watching. In fact, it made me want to watch THE DAWN PATROL again.

The other thing about this movie is that most of the way through it, in the back of my mind I kept hearing, “Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more . . . the Bloody Red Baron was rollin’ up the score . . .”


Ron Scheer said...

Thanks. I'm the wrong age to remember the song, but didn't Snoopy keep his memory alive in American pop culture?

The kind of gallantry of these WWI fighters is part of another world, with its own code of ethics. Seems to have been as much sport as armed conflict.

Have you ever read James Salter's novel The Hunters about American fighter pilots in Korea? A different world, but again with its own code of ethics.

James Reasoner said...

No, I'm not familiar with Salter's novel, but I'll check it out. Thanks for the tip. It's probably safe to say that a lot of people have heard of the Red Baron only because of Snoopy.

Fred Blosser said...

I have fond but vague memories of Floyd Gibbons' THE RED KNIGHT OF GERMANY, which remained in print at least as late as 1964, when I bought the Bantam paperback. I believe Gibbons' book was a bestseller for many years and first popularized von Richthofen's reputation in the U.S. I haven't read widely in the WWI air war literature, but from some accounts, not all the airmen shared that "brother warrior" feeling for the enemy; a kill was a kill. Derek Robinson wrote a couple of gritty, jaundiced novels about the Royal Flying Corps -- GOSHAWK SQUADRON and WAR STORY. One occupational hazard for the fliers -- fumes from the castor oil that lubricated their engines would blow back into the cockpit give them the trots.

James Reasoner said...

I remember reading Gibbons' book about von Richtofen sometime in the 60s as well, in that same Bantam paperback edition. Pretty good book, as I recall. I'll check out those Derek Robinson novels, too. I know his name but don't think I've ever read anything by him.

Brian Drake said...

I don't know if I could sit through a movie about the Red Baron. I, too, would be distracted by waiting for Snoopy and his doghouse to come flying by to save the day. (Not that I don't care for war movies told from the "other" side--Das Boot was amazing.) And, James, I must echo your appreciation for FLYBOYS, which I caught on television recently. It was probably the one time where I really enjoyed the predictability, if that makes sense. I think that, deep down, I wanted to be in one of those planes, so maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much.

Another great aviation war film is "Piece of Cake"--a British miniseries about Spitfire pilots in World War Two. Best part about it? No CGI. Those are REAL airplanes, and they look wonderful. It should be on DVD.

James Reasoner said...

I'll see if Netflix has PIECE OF CAKE. I think I've heard of it. For me, FLYBOYS would be worth it if just for that one scene near the end. I'll bet you know the one I'm talking about.

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

If you want reasonably authentic (though british empire boys own book style) fiction about the royal flying corps in WW I, read the Biggles books by Capt. WE Johns (who was, himself, a WW I pilot in the independent air force, which succeeded the royal flying corps and became the royal air force).

WW I did have a lot of camaraderie between flyers on both sides. Enough to justify / provide some sort of basis to the incident where Der Rote Baron meets Brown and philosophizes with him.

Brian Drake said...

Yup, "that scene" was indeed a great moment in the history of action shows. Totally unbelievable, but I liked it anyway.