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Posted on Apr 14, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Films of the First World War

By Wyatt Kingseed

2.jpgThe Blue Max

George Peppard has the look of an ideal Aryan, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned; he’s blond, blue-eyed, and handsome. He stars as Bruno Stachel, an ambitious pilot with a chip on his shoulder. He’s new to the German air corps and will stop at nothing to earn the coveted Blue Max, his nation’s award for shooting down twenty enemy aircraft.

Stachel is the antithesis to the aristocratic Baron Von Richthofen, who makes a brief appearance. Undisciplined and arrogant, he fails to appreciate the chivalry of war, leaving his fellow flyers wondering if he cares more about personal advancement than their own safety.


The film includes some terrific aerial sequences. Vintage biplanes that look like unsteady crates held together with bailing wire perform spectacular loops and turns, defying gravity and dodging bullets to demonstrate just how dangerous and risky real dogfights were. Daring stunt work includes impressive flights under a railroad bridge—each wing looking to have just a few feet of clearance—and treetop-strafing runs against enemy ground troops, with hundreds of extras scrambling for cover. The attack on an observation balloon produces a gigantic fireball explosion as it crumples and collapses to earth. When one considers that German pilots had no parachutes in this war, their extraordinary courage is undeniable. 
As entertaining as the film is, it is hardly a classic. Too much focus is on the competition between Stachel and a fellow pilot, both for enemy aircraft and for Ursula Andress. Stachel finds success, both in the sky and the bedroom. The great James Mason plays General von Klugermann, and looks perfect in a crisp German uniform, replete with bright red trim and yellow scramble eggs on the collar. The general believes that war weary Germans desperately need a common hero to boost morale as its war fortunes wane throughout 1918. When Stachel’s kill count begins to rise, Von Klugermann promotes him as a national icon, staging a phony photo op in a hospital.

Stachel’s drive for glory eventually gets the best of him and he falsely claims two kills shot down by his rival, who crashes and dies at the scene. When Von Klugermann uncovers his prodigy’s duplicity, he arranges for him to test fly a new experimental plane, whose safety is highly in question. The end is reminiscent of John Ford’s Fort Apache—an officer’s defects are left unreported for the good of the corps.

3.jpgThe Lost Patrol

A solid survival story by John Ford. A British patrol finds itself in peril in the sweltering Mesopotamian desert when Arabs pick off its commanding officer. Because he was the only one who knows their destination, the squad is lost. Victor McLaglen, a Ford favorite, plays the patrol’s sergeant. He keeps the men moving, hoping that they eventually find their brigade somewhere in the dunes. A night at an oasis leaves them stranded when bandits steal their horses.

Panic sets in when two soldiers sent to find help are ambushed and mutilated. Horses drag their bodies back to camp in a stark warning of what’s in store for the rest. Ford keeps the tension high by keeping the enemy invisible for nearly the entire film, a trick directors would later copy repeatedly in other genres, most notably Steven Spielberg in Jaws.  

Ford reveals the character of each of the eleven soldiers, who must fight off madness as well as the enemy. Like the soldiers in the trenches of Europe, they are just ordinary men and come in all stripes. In that sense, the lost patrol can be seen as a metaphor for the lost generation of the war. Simple men were placed in an untenable position, with no ability to control the outcome. In the end, the outcome of their struggle means little in the grand scheme. Boris Karloff, in between roles as Frankenstein’s monster, has an over-the-top turn as a member of the squad. Religious to the point of annoyance, he lapses into complete madness by the end. His death is particularly jarring. One by one, the men succumb to the searing heat and sniper bullets, until only McLaglen is left. 

McLaglen shines as the gritty NCO, trying to keep his men alive against all odds. He is just the type of leader needed in this situation. The film seems dated today, but was likely exciting fare at its release. In any event, it allowed Ford to continue refining his craft. His later work is in another league.

Max Steiner’s rousing score was nominated for an Academy Award, his first of an incredible twenty-four over the next two decades. Ford, McLaglen, Steiner, and screenwriter Dudley Nichols would team again the next year for the even more successful The Informer, when all four took home Oscars.

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  1. i am a falklands war vet

    • H i Mate me too I am working in Chile For another 3 years what C/O you had at that time, I strated from South Gorgia´s on to Port Standley
      We are still working sins then ROYAL NAVY ENGINEERS 43RNE; I am living in Punta Arenas, still F . . . up these f . . . ARGENTINOS. every other day. What the F . . . Two English men once a time in the same place and me in F… CHILE .what can I say but LONG LIVE THE ENGLISH PEOPLE AND MOST OUR SOLDIERS GOD BLESS