Tuesday, September 30, 2014


As a maker of indie B-movies, Roger Corman has no peer. But when he made big studio, bigger-budget movies, he tended to stumble.  Like his earlier ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, this film had a million-dollar budget, almost double the budget of most of his American International horror films, but was not a hit at the box office. They're not bad movies by any means, but they lack something—maybe in the writing and acting, maybe the big studio gloss one expects with a bigger budget. This tells the story of Baron Manfred von Richthofen (John Phillip Law), the WWI German flying ace better known as the Red Baron. He begins as a raw recruit who does some hot dogging over a field chasing a horse, then barely pulls up in time to miss some trees; in fact, he lands with branches stuck in his wheels. Still, he catches on quickly and becomes top dog among the German fliers, feared and respected by the British. Meanwhile, Canadian pilot Roy Brown (Don Stroud, pictured) joins the British and gets a bad reputation when he refuses to drink a toast to Richthofen—the other fliers try to keep up the idea that, despite the carnage in the air, they are all gentlemen, not savages. When Richthofen's squadron is ordered to paint the planes to camouflage them, he has his men paint them bright colors so they'll stand out instead of being hidden, with his a bright red—hence, the Red Baron, and the name the men become known by, The Flying Circus. During one dogfight, Richthofen is seriously wounded and when he returns to combat he begins showing troubling signs of memory loss and confusion. After Brown leads the British on a surprise attack and manages to damage several German planes on the ground, German pilot Hermann Goering (yes, that one) retaliates, deliberately strafing British doctors and nurses, for which Richthofen calls him out. Eventually, Brown and Richthofen meet one-on-one in the air, and of course, there can only be one victor.

What this movie has going for it is its aerial battle footage; it is well-shot, exciting and believable (at least to this viewer who has never been in a dogfight). I can't pinpoint anything wrong with the lead actors; both Law and Stroud look their parts, though both also underplay just a bit—it might have been more fun with more energetic performances. Perhaps Corman was wary that the whole thing might slip over into camp, especially given the baby boomers' identification of the Red Baron with Snoopy. The supporting cast includes Barry Primus and Corin Redgrave, and I was surprised to see Robert La Tourneaux in a decent-sized role as a German pilot—he played the hot but dumb hustler in THE BOYS IN THE BAND and I guess I never thought of him as having any other screen credits (in fact, he only did one other film). Ultimately, this is worth seeing; it's the kind of movie that is good enough that one wishes it were better. [TCM]

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