After directing the East African war film "Guns at Batasi" [M] for 20th Century Fox in 1964, John Guillermin moved on to the psychological dramam "Rapture" [M] (1965) before he was given a hefty adaptation of Jack Hunter's WW1 mini-epic, with primary locations in Ireland, using vintage WW1 fighter planes.
For years kicking around TV stations in ugly, grain-infested prints, "The Blue Max" in Fox' anamorphic DVD looks gorgeous: boasting fine details, antique colours, and a return to wide grandeur of CinemaScope that was non-existent in the TV prints, the transfer also reveals why the studio ultimately moved over to Panavision, as some of Guillermin's wide angle shots have some bending and stretching at the edges.
Nevertheless, the real star of the film is Douglas Slocombe's stunning cinematography, particularly in the aerial dogfights. Varying from intimate and collective assaults, the German and French planes swoop, dive, pivot and stream across the Heavens, leaving a continuous plume of grey smoke before the final earthbound crash. Fans of aviation films will be highly impressed at the stunt work - none involving CGI - and the wide battle scenes, which Guillermin covers via extended tracking shots as multiple explosions, fly-bys, and exploding bombs litter the frame. A lot of extras were used for the ground assaults, and the second unit directors seemed to have learned from a standard in recreating war - "The Longest Day."
Guillermin himself knew when to let his stunt directors alone, and his experience in handling large-scale and intimate action material would serve him well, later in 1974, when he co-directed "The Towering Inferno," with Irwin Allen. Also involved with the glossy production was composer Jerry Goldsmith, who had slowly worked his way through diverse pictures - several for Fox - and composed a majestic, stirring work, and adds emotional subtext where the film's five writers came up rather dry.
Remastered in Dolby Pro Logic, the basic surround mix has several passages that involve dynamic sound effects - particularly the air combat scenes - and Goldsmith's engaging music. (Ironically, the composer's best action tracks were dropped in favour of powerful sound effects, though the soundtrack CD preserves the complete action cues.)
20th Century Fox' DVD also includes English, Spanish and Portuguese trailers - essentially the same material, although the English version is matted at 1.85:1, while the cleaner foreign prints (with burnt-in subtitles for the English dialogue) are in their original 2.35:1 ratio.
Some background info on the international cast - stoic George Peppard, slithery James Mason, old guard pilots Jeremy Kemp and Karl Michael Vogler, and luscious Ursula Andress - would have been nice, and the film's place as a grand WW1 mini-epic could have been highlighted, given the production's pedigree.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan