Monday, January 21, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Von Richthofen and Brown" (1971)

There's a big difference between low-budget and cheap, and fairly or not Roger Corman's films have usually been associated with the latter.

"The Blair Witch Project" and "El Mariachi" were both made for next to nothing, but few observers would deny the craftsmanship of those pictures. Fewer still would say they saw such qualities in Corman's movies.

From a technical standpoint, he was not a great filmmaker. His eye for compositions was so-so, and his actors often seemed like they were flailing away with little guidance. But he inspired an entire generation of Boomer filmmakers, and made some memorable schlock -- and even some Edgar Allen Poe adaptations with a little ambition -- during his heyday of the 1950s and '60s. (He was given an honorary Academy Award a few years back.)

By 1971 Corman, still only in his mid-40s, was looking to wrap things up as a director. "Von Richthofen and Brown" was his last stint behind the camera for nearly 20 years, when he would direct his final picture, "Frankenstein Unbound." He continued on mainly as a producer thereafter, with a jaw-dropping 400 credits to his name ... and counting.

Regular visitors to this space will know that World War I aviation is a passion of mine, and through the Reeling Backward columns I've continually sought out films about that subject. (Including Howard Hughes' "Hell's Angels" just a couple of weeks ago.)

I guess the reason I find that era so enthralling is that we're talking about these airplanes being used for warfare just a few short years after they were invented. The Wright Brothers flew a few hundred yards in 1902, and a dozen years later their offspring became a key component of the science of war.

These WWI planes were claptrap machines, mostly wood and canvas, firing crude machine guns and powered by engines spewing oil onto their pilots. Early bomb drops were accomplished by the men literally tossing grenades out of the cockpit by hand. The pilot's controls were connected to the wings and fins by cables that could easily be shorn by enemy fire or obstacles.

Every time a new plane was introduced into service, it could turn the entire balance of the war in the air for the next few months. Many experts believe that the Fokker D.VII could have altered the tide of aerial combat if it had been introduced earlier than summer 1918. In just the last few months of the war, the plane racked up an impressive 565 kills. It could even fly straight up vertically for short periods, spraying enemies with gunfire from below.

Baron Manfred von Richthofen never got to fly the D.VII, perishing just before it was introduced into service. His death has remained controversial, but today nearly all historians do not believe the "Red Baron," the greatest flying ace of all time, was killed by a bullet from Canadian pilot Roy Brown. An anti-aircraft battery on the ground almost certainly fired the fatal shot.

Still, the legend has persisted, and Corman -- a pilot and aviation enthusiast himself -- decided to make a picture about the two men. The result, "Von Richthofen and Brown," is an authentic-looking film filled with complex fight scenes involving a dozen or more aircraft. The story, however, is pretty much a total concoction.

The movie, written by Jon William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington, essentially keeps the names and basic facts about notable German and Allied pilots in place, while completely fabricating their personalities and history. It's like keeping all the pieces of a chess board, but flipping around where they start and how they can move.

The main difference is that they show the war unfolding over months and years with Brown and von Richthofen on parallel journeys, culminating with their confrontation in the air. In fact, Brown was relatively new to air combat, while the German ace was a national hero. Von Richthofen commanded the most storied air team of the war, "The Flying Circus" -- so named for their brightly-painted aircraft -- while Brown was a comparative nobody.

Both pilots are dedicated to the craft of killing, though from different backgrounds. Von Richthofen (John Phillip Law) is an aristocrat who finds himself freed from earthly concerns up in the air, where he can play the role of hunter stalking a dangerous beast. He believes in a gentlemanly approach to war, where soldiers can kill their enemy without hating him, and aggressively bring the fight to him without endangering civilians or medical personnel.

Brown, played by Don Stroud, is a surly maverick who rejects his British comrades' vision of themselves as knight-errants out for some derring-do. He refuses to drink to von Richthofen, raising the ire of his fellow pilots, and espouses surprise tactics to take out their enemies before they have a chance to retaliate. He also organizes a raid on the German airfield, which prompts a brutal reprisal.

Brown is the cynical, jaded yin to von Richthofen's courageous, brash yang. Neither man quite fit in with the military hierarchy around him, but eventually bent it to his will.

The aerial fight scenes are energetic, though it's often hard to follow the action of who exactly is chasing who. In the finale fight Corman shows planes suddenly exploding into a million pieces, which is virtually impossible given the composition of the craft and the effectiveness of guns back then. Mostly the planes start smoking, and the stunt pilots turn them into sharp dives to simulate an aerial death.

Still, Corman's film amply shows off the acrobatics of these delicate pieces of machinery, tumbling and rolling and side-slipping through the sky.  It's important to remember that these planes traveled at about the same speed we now drive on the interstate.

Characterizations are kept to a pretty bare minimum. The main antagonist of the film is Hermann Göring (Barry Primus), the infamous Nazi leader who was a notable pilot in the first world war. Göring is shown opposing von Richthofen's genteel tactics and competing with him for command of the Flying Circus. In actuality, they never served together and Göring only took command well after the Red Baron's death.

As a piece of cinematic entertainment, "Von Richthofen and Brown" is a passably good war drama with some ambitious aerial sequences. As history it's pretty much useless. But it's certainly not a cheapie.

2.5 stars out of four

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