Freshly divorced from American-International Pictures, Roger Corman leaps into the filmic mainstream with a fairly large-scale World War One aviation picture. He competes with the big studios but retains his nonconformist attitude: his retelling of the story of the Red Baron fixates on the theme of the death of chivalry in combat. For his star player Corman picks John Phillip Law, whose on-screen persona is a good fit for one of the first warrior aces of the sky.
Von Richthofen and Brown
KL Studio Classics
1971 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date May 21, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: John Phillip Law, Don Stroud, Barry Primus, Corin Redgrave, Stephen McHattie, Hurd Hatfield
Robert La Tourneaux, Ferdy Mayne, Peter Masterson, Clint Kimbrough, George Armitage.
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Film Editor: Alan Collins
Original Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Written by John William Corrington, Joyce H. Corrington
Produced by Gene Corman, Jimmy T. Murakami
Directed by Roger Corman
Roger Corman’s 1990 autobiography is skimpy on details for his early pictures, perhaps he made them so quickly, they were just a blur in his memory. But he has plenty to say when his life became more complicated, filming more controversial pictures for American-International Pictures, and trying to work for outside studios as a director for hire. A.I.P. burned him four times in a row, re-cutting and censoring his films behind his back. The studios frustrated him with red tape, committee vetoes of his casting decisions and general time-wasting. By 1970 he was ready for a new path, and while setting up his New World distribution company, worked with his brother Gene Corman on a fairly big-budget picture for United Artists. Six years before they’d successfully produced the war saga The Secret Invasion with UA, and their new picture Von Richthofen and Brown would take an equally cynical look at an earlier era of combat.
There’s no way an epic as big as the Richthofen/Brown story could be made on a Secret Invasion budget, but the Brothers Corman found a way to do it that put stars in the eyes of the UA accountants. Vintage airplanes constructed for The Blue Max (1966) and Darling Lili (1970) were still in Ireland, intact and rentable. The Emerald Isle was also a perfect location to represent 1917 France, and an economical place to film, especially for labor. But Corman didn’t go cheap on the important things. He hired the ambitious animation specialist Jimmy T. Murakami (When the Wind Blows), who took a associate producer credit but actually art directed the picture, storyboarded the air battles, and helped film the aerial action as a second unit director. Ex- Hammer cameraman Michael Reed had recently filmed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so was a definite find. The writing team of John and Joyce Corrington (Boxcar Bertha) delivered the anti-establishment screenplay that Corman wanted.
The finished film is a handsome piece of work that finds its own approach to a genre still dominated by The Dawn Patrol clichés — whatever you do, stay away from 2006’s execrable Flyboys. Corman scales back the romance angle in favor of a constant comment on changing attitudes toward warfare. On the British side, working-class Canadian Roy Brown (Don Stroud, late of A.I.P.’s Bloody Mama and Angel Unchained) rejects the ‘jolly good show’ attitudes of his fellow fliers, who treat the combat in the skies as a gentleman’s sport. To Brown it’s all just a killing field, and he’s in favor of skipping the rituals to concentrate on more efficient ways to murder the enemy. Brown doesn’t care that some of his comrades hate his guts — but as the warfare becomes uglier, he begins to win converts to his pragmatic ideas about their dangerous work.
Meanwhile, young Baron Manfred von Richthofen (John Phillip Law of Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik) begins as an idealistic, somewhat stuffy aristocrat dazzled by his role as a 20th-century Teutonic Knight. He approaches the fighting enthusiastically and becomes obsessed with winning medals and ‘Rollin’ Up the Score’ (to quote Snoopy). When his role model Major Boelke (Peter Masterson) is killed, the brass puts Manfred in charge of the whole flying unit, as a good political and public relations move. Some of Richthofen’s comrades resent his noble pedigree, while the arrogant Hermann Goering (Barry Primus) is just an unprincipled swine. But Manfred wins them over with his patrician attitude and his commitment to chivalrous derring-do. When ordered to camouflage his planes Richthofen instead paints them bright colors. He paints his own new Fokker triplane bright red, inviting the enemy to dare take him on in combat.
Disillusion sets in on both sides. Manfred is given award after award by the Emperor, and is urged “…to go back and butcher another forty of the sons of bitches.” Both Manfred’s father (Ferdy Mayne of The Fearless Vampire Killers) and Dutch-German industrialist Anthony Fokker (Hurd Hatfield of The Picture of Dorian Gray) entreat the ace to simply survive and look at the bigger picture; they know the war is lost but even in defeat are making plans for a prosperous future.
Meanwhile, Roy Brown discovers that the Allied brass would also like the air corps to be less of a glamour sideshow, and to score meaningful victories. Brown convinces his unit to ignore the old rules of chivalry. They carry out a nasty raid on the German airfield, wiping out every German plane. But Richthofen was just about to receive a new shipment of planes from his new friend Fokker. The Germans’ surprise retaliation is even worse, because Goering takes it upon himself to strafe the Allied field hospital, defying basic human decency. From that point forward the combat is essentially ruthless, with no mercy given… until Roy Brown and Manfred von Richthofen square off for their epochal duel in the sky.
Von Richthofen and Brown works just fine, but it does seem more than a little lightweight, a less ponderous but also less detailed slim-down of The Blue Max. Corman doesn’t rush things but there’s little finesse to his visuals. The key performances are quite good. John Phillip Law is well cast, coming off as a Prussian schoolboy with just a touch of idealism. Don Stroud does fine with the no-nonsense Roy Brown, but some element is lacking — we don’t naturally like Stroud the way we somehow do Law.
Unfortunately, the large supporting cast is a blur of good actors that are insufficiently differentiated — for some of them we don’t connect names and faces soon enough to keep straight exactly which ones are killed in action. Most of the talent went on to busy careers, like Barry Primus and Stephen McHattie (A History of Violence). Peter Masterson would become a noted director (The Trip to Bountiful). But unless we’re watching with actor flashcards and a score sheet we aren’t going to see what happens to people like Robert La Tourneaux (The Boys in the Band) or Corman regulars Clint Kimbrough and George Armitage.
The romance angle is limited, and has nothing to match the sexy Ursula Andress of The Blue Max. While tooling around the countryside on a vintage motorcycle, Roy Brown connects briefly with a French girl (Lorraine Rainer), which humanizes him but doesn’t amount to much. The Baron’s only sex interest is Ilse (Karen Huston) a busty fraülein that the industrialist Fokker provides as an incentive to sign up for a business partnership. While Fokker praises the seductive lines of his newest plane, we watch Ilse climb over it like Vanna White on aphrodisiacs. The show ‘n’ tell display isn’t particularly witty, although the actress is pretty.
The fact that the Germans in Von Richthofen and Brown speak English isn’t a big issue, although for realism movies and particularly war pictures going forward would more often use original languages and subtitles. Perhaps the reason the actors playing Germans come off a little weaker is that most of them were re-voiced to add German accents. Corman shot the film without accents, and just walked away when UA insisted on the redub sessions. Sync is sometimes rubbery and some voices sound canned; Ilse’s brief song would seem to be affected as well.
Corman organized his action scenes for maximum efficiency. Forget show-off mastershots with star talent interacting with multiple physical effects, as scenes like that require a half-day’s effort, minimum. A close editorial examination of the two aerodrome raid scenes shows that every explosion, fly-by and strafing run was repeated via the use of multiple cameras. That’s why tents, small buildings and field hospitals don’t always have national markings, so the same explosion action can be used for both air raid scenes. When later producing his innumerable straight-to-video movies of the 1980s and 1990s, Corman would make certain that all the action footage was as generic as possible. He’d halt filming on one of his action pictures about drug runners in Mexico, and tell the director to re-use battle footage from the last action picture. The same shots of things blowing up and people being machine-gunned found their way into scores of ‘new’ productions.
Roger was most proud of his aerial combat scenes. Corman’s Oxford engineering degree surely helped. Second unit directors did air-to-air work from a helicopter, and a special oil survey plane built to fly as slow as 50 mph. Rather than go up in a plane himself, Corman took charge of a third camera placed on a thirty-foot tower on a tall hill. Murakami laid out the action like a football play. The actors during the dogfights were covered the old ‘Howard Hughes way,’ with plane-mounted cameras that the pilots and actors activated on their own. Thus all the cockpit shots using real actors are authentic, without expensive traveling mattes that often leave blue-screen fringe lines that spoil the illusion.
Just the same, the aerial scenes aren’t as stunning as those in The Blue Max. Individual shots are wonderful, but they seem somewhat random and don’t always present a clear progression of events. The film also has just too many lengthy aerial scenes, as if Corman asked his editor to use every available shot. As with the earlier Battle of Britain, after the third generic dogfight without knowing which characters we are looking at, our attention wanders. We also grow tired of hearing constant machine guns, and just zone out watching the pretty planes zoom to and fro. More than once, when men were mourning a pilot just lost, I realized I’d missed that action, or couldn’t remember who the guy was.
Basically a solid picture, and a MAJOR production considering its cost, Von Richthofen and Brown didn’t set the world on fire for Roger Corman. His unit was lucky when it came to accidents, but the enthusiast / entrepreneur he rented the planes from died during the shoot, filming scenes on his own for a different movie, the mostly forgotten Zeppelin. Perhaps eager to slow down his non-stop production lifestyle, and fed up with seeing his work altered by studios, at age 45 Corman married his collaborator Julie Ann Halloran and launched his own distributorship. New World split the film market, producing its own sleazy exploitation movies but also importing European art films. Corman directed only one more picture twenty years later, but produced hundreds of straight-to-video and cable TV movies.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Von Richthofen and Brown is a fine widescreen encoding of this attractive picture. The slightly grainy but richly colored images always look snappy, as do John Phillip Law’s blazing blue eyes. When the Germans paint their planes, the bright colors almost look too bright.
The extras include a clutch of trailers and a new video interview with director Corman. He mostly tells the same familiar stories from his autobio that he always tells, holding back some of the messier details. It’s hard to believe how good Roger looks– I believe that he just turned ninety-three years old. We hope he keeps active and working as long as he’s still having fun.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Von Richthofen and Brown
Movie: Good +
Supplements: New interview with Roger Corman, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 12, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson