Coming from humble origins, Leutnant Stachel is driven to prove himself better than the aristocratic pilots in his new fighter squadron, especially Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp). Their commanding officer, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Karl Michael Vogler) is an upper-class officer whose notions of chivalry conflict with Stachel's ruthless determination.
On his first mission, Stachel shoots down a British S.E.5, but does not receive credit for his "kill" because there were no witnesses. He searches the French countryside for hours in a pouring rain looking for the wreckage, giving the other pilots the impression that he cares more about it than the death of the man he flew with.
Soon afterwards, he attacks an Allied two-man observation aircraft, incapacitating the rear gunner. Then, instead of downing the helpless victim, he signals the pilot to surrender and fly to his base. However, as they near the airfield, the wounded man revives and reaches for his machine gun, unseen by the admiring observers on the ground. Stachel is forced to shoot the aircraft down, but Heidemann believes Stachel simply murdered the crew in order to gain a "confirmed" kill.
The incident brings Stachel to the attention of General Count von Klugermann (James Mason), Willi's uncle. When the general comes to the base to award his nephew the Blue Max, he meets Stachel. As a member of the masses, "as common as dirt", the pilot has great potential for propaganda purposes. That night, the general's wife, Kaeti (Ursula Andress), mistakenly enters Stachel's room. She is carrying on a discreet affair with her nephew by marriage, with her husband's knowledge.
Soon afterwards, Stachel is shot down going to the aid of a red Fokker Dr.I attacked by two British fighters. He survives the crash landing. When he returns to the airfield, he is stunned when he is introduced to the man he saved: Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Grateful, von Richtofen offers Stachel a place in his squadron. He regretfully declines.
With Stachel temporarily grounded owing to a minor injury, General von Klugermann orders him to Berlin to help shore up crumbling public morale. While there, von Klugermann invites Stachel to dinner so that Kaeti can sleep with her latest hero.
When Stachel returns to duty, he and Willi von Klugermann volunteer to escort a reconnaissance aircraft. British fighters attack. Stachel's guns jam, but Willi downs two of the enemy on his first pass, then a third on Stachel's tail, and the rest disengage. As the two are returning to their base, Willi challenges Stachel. Spotting a bridge, Willi dives under the wide middle span, but Stachel tops him by flying under a much narrower side one. Seething, Willi clears the smaller span, but clips the top of a nearby brick tower and crashes. When Stachel reports his death, Heidemann assumes that the two verified victories were Willi's. Insulted, Stachel impulsively claims the kills, even though it is discovered that he had only fired 40 bullets because his gun was jammed. Outraged, Heidemann reports Stachel's lie to his superiors, but is told that Stachel's victories will be confirmed.
Later, during a strafing mission covering the retreat of the German army, Stachel disobeys Heidemann's order not to engage enemy fighters; one by one, the rest of the squadron follow him. Afterwards, Heidemann has Stachel arrested, furious that nearly half the pilots were killed in the ensuing dogfight. Stachel, however, cares only that he has shot down enough aircraft, even without Willi's kills, to qualify for the Blue Max. The two men are ordered to Berlin. There, General von Klugermann tells Heidemann privately that Stachel is to receive the Blue Max. Heidemann resigns his command in disgust when the general orders him to withdraw his report; he accepts a desk job.
Later that evening, the countess visits Stachel and suggests that they run away to Switzerland since Germany's defeat is inevitable. She storms out when he refuses to be one of her "lapdogs".
The next day, Stachel is awarded the Blue Max by the Crown Prince in a well-publicized ceremony. However, a field marshal telephones von Klugermann to inform him of an impending investigation into Stachel. The general asks how the field marshal found out about Stachel's lie. While listening on the phone, he turns his gaze to his wife. Desperate to avoid a scandal, von Klugermann sees a way out when Heidemann reports that the new monoplane he has just test-flown is a "death trap", with fatally-weak struts. He orders Stachel to take the aircraft up and to "show us some real flying." During strenuous aerobatics, Stachel's aircraft breaks up, plunges to the ground and bursts into flames. Von Klugermann stamps and signs Stachel's personnel file and has it sent to the field marshal, stating, "It is the personal file of a German officer and a hero."
|George Peppard||Leutnant Bruno Stachel|
|James Mason||General Count von Klugermann|
|Ursula Andress||Countess Kaeti von Klugermann|
|Jeremy Kemp||Leutnant Willi von Klugermann|
|Karl Michael Vogler||Hauptmann Otto Heidemann|
|Loni von Friedl||Elfi Heidemann|
The casting of George Peppard in the mainly international ensemble cast was considered a "safe" choice as he was establishing a reputation for leading roles in action films. Although youthful looking, at 39 years of age, he was much older than the Bruno Stachel depicted in the novel. Peppard wanted to create an "authentic" performance and learned to fly, earned a private pilot's license and did some of his own flying in the film, although stunt pilot, Derek Pigott was at the controls for the under-the-bridge scene.
Stachel: The movie portrays Stachel initially as an idealistic, humble, and naive man who evolves into someone more cynical and dishonest over time; he is also depicted as being insecure about his lower-class background and desires to prove himself an equal aviator and man to the aristocrats by earning the Blue Max. During the war, the Pour La Merite medal or Blue Max was awarded at different times for between 8 and 16 "kills". The vain attempt by Stachel to confirm his first kill is only found in the film. There is also no confrontation with Heidemann who takes a swift dislike to Stachel over claiming aircraft that Willi had shot down.
Stachel was played by a 39-year-old George Peppard, in stark contrast to the 19-year-old character of the novel. From the beginning of the novel, Stachel is a deeply troubled alcoholic with a penchant for lying. Obsessed with earning the last of the new Fokker D.VIIs, he kills Willi to obtain it. Heidemann, in the novel exhibits an immediate favoritism toward the newcomer, and credits Stachel with his first victories while Kettering, the squadron adjutant, refuses to comply until Heidemann orders him to do so.
At the end of the novel, Heidemann reveals that he has been secretly boosting Stachel's achievements as part of an experiment in publicity management. Stachel earns his Blue Max not from 20 victories, but by destroying three aircraft and capturing one after Heidemann's guns jam. (Stachel is so drunk, he cannot even recall the engagement.) He is also honored for saving the life of a French girl who falls into a river. Stachel does not die in the book, and in fact meets the future commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, then-Hauptmann Hermann Göring. Stachel marries Kaeti von Klugermann after the death of Graf von Klugermann, as noted at the beginning of The Blood Order, the second book in Jack Hunter's Stachel series.
Hauptmann Heidemann: Heidemann's deep longing to be with his wife and her growing depression over his absence are more subtle in the movie than the book. In the novel, Heidemann does not accuse Stachel of treachery in the shooting down of the British aircraft over their airfield. He regards Stachel as the best pilot in the Jasta after himself, and has already planned to assign Stachel one of the new Fokker D.VIIs. In the novel, Heidemann (not General von Klugermann) is the one who recognizes the propaganda value of building Stachel up into a hero and uses this as a means to get himself reassigned to Berlin, to be near his wife.
Willi von Klugermann: Willi is described as a "fat aristocrat" in the book who has only one victory more than Stachel. In the film, Willi is leaner, more arrogant and competitive and earns a Blue Max shortly after Stachel's arrival. In the book, Willi regards Stachel as a close friend, and his affair with Kaeti is revealed only after his death when Stachel reads his journal. Unlike the movie, they are never rivals for her affection. In the novel, Willi is murdered by Stachel to obtain the last of the five new Fokker D VIIs allotted to the squadron. In the movie, Willi is accidentally killed in an aerial competition with Stachel over who is the better pilot.
General von Klugermann: In the movie, the count is a career General-Oberst in the German Army. In the novel, his title is Graf and he is a famous surgeon who has researched alcoholism and other addictions. Unlike the film, the Graf and Gräfin do not have an open marriage. In the film, General von Klugermann recognizes the social turmoil erupting in Germany and presents Stachel as a lower-class hero. Doctor von Klugermann, an aristocrat, recognizes the unfair nature of Germany's class system – something he disapproves of, but makes no effort to change.
Käti von Klugermann: Käti's character in the book and film are similar. The Gräfin, comes from the lower classes, but relishes her status and wealth. Both characters deftly employ sexuality to get what they want. In the book, while drunk, Stachel extorts money from Käti with his knowledge of her affair with Willi. Later, she forces Stachel to marry her by threatening to reveal his murder of Willi and two British pilots. In the film, she proposes that Stachel run away with her to Switzerland, something he refuses to do. For this sleight, she reveals Stachel’s lies. Her husband, the General, then sends Stachel to his death in an unstable plane to preserve the honor of the officer corps.
Elfi Heidemann: In both the novel and the film, Elfi is a nurse stationed in Berlin. In the book, Elfi is an alcoholic who overcomes her addiction with the assistance of Doctor von Klugermann. Stachel recognizes Elfi as his kindred spirit, and after Heidemann's death, seeks to form a relationship with her. Käti literally stops him at Elfi's door, forcing Stachel to marry her instead. Stachel ruefully accepts his fate to return to Käti and alcoholism.
Corporal Rupp: Rupp has only a minor role in the movie. In the novel, he is a major and thoroughly distasteful character, whom Stachel describes as "a pig of a man." He earns extra money by smuggling cheap booze to Stachel, and using one of the squadron's reconnaissance cameras to take pornographic pictures for Kettering's extensive collection of erotica. In the end, it is Rupp who provides Käti with evidence that implicates Stachel in Willi's murder.
Conclusion: In the movie, Heidemann flies the monoplane first and determines that it is a "death trap" because the struts are too weak for the wing loading. General von Klugermann then sends Stachel to his death in order to shield the German Officer Corps from the shame of Stachel's false claim of two victories. In the novel, it is Stachel who tries out a new biplane, finds the defect, and then allows Heidemann to fly the aircraft to his death in order to court his widow. Hunter's novel ends with Stachel meeting a young Herman Goering, who has assumed command of the vaunted "Flying Circus" after the death of its commander, Manfred von Richtofen.
The Fokker Dr.I triplanes are purpose-built replicas. The Tiger Moth silhouette was more appropriate to British aircraft of the period, such as the S.E.5a (one of which Stachel shoots down during his first mission, only to be crushed when his claim is not confirmed by army observation) and presents a good general impression of actual contemporary aircraft.
The "death-trap" monoplane at the end of the film, known as the "Adler" (German for eagle) in the novel, may have been inspired by the Fokker E.V, which was a late-war monoplane design which did indeed rapidly gather a reputation for poor construction of the wing-to-fuselage join, resulting in several crashes before being modified and re-designated the Fokker D.VIII.
The depictions of aerial combat in the film are particularly realistic, though most of the flying scenes have green fields as backdrops, whereas, by 1918, the Western Front was more mud than greenery. The aircraft ground scenes were shot at Gormanston airfield near Dublin (which should not to be confused with RAF Weston-on-the-Green, England).
Pilots from the Irish Air Corps helped recreate the live dog-fight scenes, supported by number of civilians, including Charles Boddington and Derek Piggott. But Derek Piggott was the only pilot willing to fly the stunt at the climax of the film in which two bitter rivals challenge each other to fly beneath the spans of a bridge. Taking the role of both German pilots and with multiple takes from contrasting camera angles, he ended up flying 15 times under the wide span of a bridge in Fermoy, County Cork, Ireland and 17 times under the narrower span. The two Fokker Dr.I triplane replicas had about four feet of clearance on each side when passing through the narrower span. He was able to fly through the arch reliably by aligning two scaffolding poles, one in the river and one on the far bank.
In the movie, just before Stachel and Willi start their under-bridge flying, one of the triplanes is seen in mid-air executing a virtually perfect barrel roll maneuver, as seen from directly behind the pair.
The director had placed a flock of sheep next to the bridge so that they would scatter as the plane approached in order to show that the stunt was real and not simulated with models. However, by later takes, the sheep had become accustomed to the planes, and had to be scared by the shepherd instead. In the printed take, the sheep continued to graze, creating a continuity error which can be seen in the finished film. The entire collection of aircraft, uniforms and supporting equipment was purchased from 20th Century Fox by ex-RCAF pilot Lynn Garrison. He kept the collection together in Ireland under his company, Blue Max Aviation, Ltd. Over the following years they played a part in You Can't Win 'Em All, Darling Lili, The Red Baron (1971), Zeppelin, Von Richthofen and Brown, plus a number of television commercials.
The Berlin scenes were shot in Dublin. Christchurch Cathedral and the Irish parliament building are easily recognizable in the background of many scenes and Trinity College served as the army headquarters where von Klugermann's office is located.