We have Netflix and in my queue I have a lot of war movies. I keep them there in reserve so-to-speak for when my wife wants to watch something I have zero interest in. I can then break open the laptop put the head phones on and take a chance on a war movie I have not seen. A couples of nights ago I fired up a movie titled The Red Baron.
I confess that I did not research the film prior to watching it. Please note that some spoilers will follow.
I knew that the Red Baron was Manfred von Richthofen and that he had shot down 80 allied airplanes in the First World War. The baron was the highest scoring ace in that war. I also knew prior to watching the movie that Captain Roy Brown, a Canadian is credited with shooting him down although it is widely disputed. I also knew that Richthofen flew the famous Fokker Triplane for a relatively short time and had achieved most of his victories in various Albatross models. I knew that Richthofen had a brother named Lothar who was also an ace who achieved the impressive score of 40 planes. I also knew that a cousin, Wolfram, would gain fame in the Second World War by leading an air fleet on the Russian Front.
Beyond all that all I had was a mixture of legend and fact.
I had the perception that Richthofen was the quintessential knight in the sky-the German version of the noble knight who was a gentleman. This aspect of the baron was portrayed in the movie when Richthofen and his mates do a fly over of a British funeral. Richthofen had shot down a British ace named Hawke (true) and during the fly over of the man’s grave he drops a wreath that reads “a friend and an enemy.” It was a well done scene with four German planes flying low over the funeral in a type of salute.
As a boy I would have thought of Richthofen as a hero of mythic proportions representing my ancestry prior to the Nazi holocaust and reminding me of a time when all Germans were not bad Germans.
WW1 was horrible war but it differs from WW2 in a number of ways especially when it comes to exactly who the bad guys were. Perhaps the British had the best stated motives as they were sworn to protect Belgium and so declared war on Germany when Germany invaded Belgium. On the other hand the British and Germans were vying for mastery of the seas and each had a colonial empire (Britain’s being vast) and all that meant rivalry and competition. Finding pure motives in any war is a bit tricky. (Augustine’s theology of a just war makes for an interesting read.)
Having said all that I watched the movie with low expectations since I never heard of it which is no surprise because the movie is a 2008 German production filmed in English. I gave the movie 3 stars on Netflix which is “I liked it.”
I liked it first because it told a story. The story is not historically accurate on many levels but I didn’t know that and so could not complain too much about the producers getting this or that wrong. I can be annoying that way when I watch a war movie.
I was skeptical about the sub-plot involving Capt. Brown and the baron. The film went way beyond the theory that Brown shot down Richthofen.
At one point in 1916 Richthofen shoots Brown down and saves his life turning Brown over to “Kate” who nurses Brown back to health and later becomes Richthofen’s love interest. First and second red flag.
Later in the movie Richthofen and Brown meet in no-man’s land and have a chat (third red flag). Richthofen learns that Brown had escaped from a POW camp (4th red flag).
The chat is friendly-two knights on opposite sides who respect each other, friends and enemies is the line used at least twice. After Richthofen is killed it is Brown who gets “Kate” through allied lines so she can visit the baron’s grave (5th red flag).
I was skeptical of the whole sub-plot and later discovered that not any of it had a basis in fact. My red flag meter worked just fine. I imagine that the producers gave so much time to this sub-plot is because 1) they wanted an anti-war sub-theme and 2) wanted female viewers who could identify with Kate the nurse.
The anti-war sub-theme is how the fictional “Kate” opened Richthofen’s eyes to the horrors of war and chastised him for thinking it was a game or joust in the sky. By the end of the movie Richthofen seems almost the pacifist to the great annoyance of his brother Lothar (and an arrogant German General) who still believes in the righteousness of the German cause. I at least found that sub-plot plausible since 4 years of horrible warfare would be enough to turn almost anyone into a pacifist.
The Kaiser makes two appearances in the film. His notable line to Richthofen is when Richthofen is frank with him about the futility of the war and the butchery. Richthofen mentions “killing people” and the Kaiser says indignantly was “my soldiers do not kill people, they destroy enemies.” I like Richthofen’s response who says in return, “it amounts to the same thing.” It never happened but was a good scene in my opinion.
There is also a scene with Kate after Richthofen turns pacifistic that I also found plausible. He tells the fictional Kate that he continues to fly because he has the choice to fly. Earlier in the movie Kate takes him to field hospital and shows him the horrors of combat as German soldiers litter the hospital with their broken bodies. Kate tells him they don’t have a choice because they are not nobility like he is. This stuns Richthofen but it opens his eyes to the idea he owes it to those who have no choice to lead them and do his best for them.
While the incident itself is fiction it says something about a soldier’s sense of duty and why they fight. They usually fight not out of sense of patriotism although that is a background motive. Soldiers fight because they do not want to let their comrades down. Their units become like family and that provides an esprit de corp and motive to fight even if they no longer believe in a cause.
I thought the idea of camaraderie was well represented in the movie as Richthofen loses one good friend after another in aerial combat. Scenes involving his squadron mates illustrated the bond soldiers tend to have within their units and the sense of loss when the “old timers” are lost. I thought the actor who played Richtofen’s best friend did a great portrayal of Werner Voss, an ace of 48 victories before he was killed.
Another aspect of the camaraderie was the inclusion of a German-Jewish flyer who is killed. The flyer’s plane was painted with a six-pointed star. At the end of the movie it is admitted the character is fictional but the producers wanted to give credit to the large number of German-Jews who served in the German WW1 air squadrons. I believe this was done to help purge the Nazi image and remind viewers of a Germany that existed prior to Hitler. (Most European countries of the period were anti-Semitic although it varied in intensity from country to country.)
The best parts of the movie to me were the airplanes and the dogfights. They were well done and the part that featured the Flying Circus was especially fun to see as each pilot in Richthofen’s command seemed to outdo the other in wild paint schemes! If anything, the dogfights were underplayed as compared to the love story. Nevertheless, the dogfights were well done.
The period sets seemed accurate, featuring vintage autos, horse-drawn wagons and period uniforms. I got the feel of a 1916-18 WW1 setting as the producers seemed to go out of their way to get those things right.
I found out later that the historical production aspect of the film received the highest praise while for the most part the movie was panned in Germany. The reason stated for the poor reviews in Germany is that modern Germans have little knowledge of their pre-WW2 history and anything that smacks of patriotism is shunned. The movie is about Imperial Germany and pre-Hitler, yet it seems most Germans (and others) would paint the eras with the same wide brush.
The movie was marketed as a biopic but as already noted there was much license taken in exploring who the Red Baron really was and what he was like. If you were expecting a documentary you’d be disappointed. If however you were expecting a story that has at least plausible elements to it you might come away giving it three stars like I did.