I recently re-watched The Red Baron, a German-British film from 2008, and with it being set during WW1 and today being Remembrance Day, what better time to talk about it and its themes?
First up, the most striking thing about this film is that it exists at all. Movies with a decent budget set during WW1 are rare (the recent 1917 being the exception to the rule), and I think it’s more than fair to add that movies set during the air war of WW1 are even rarer. So take it as read that I was very excited to hear about this movie’s existence back in the day although I never knew it to play in local cinemas for any length of time that I noticed, so had to rely on the DVD release to actually see it.
Second, the film uses a mostly German cast, but has them speaking in English. I appreciated this greatly as it put brand-new faces in front of me who I could invest in as the characters. It wasn’t, “Leonardo DiCaprio as The Red Baron! Brad Pitt as Werner Voss!” which would have been absolutely terrible. I still get taken out of the film a little by the roles played by Joseph Fiennes and Lena Headey, but I assume both were cast to give the film a boost with English-speaking audiences.
So with the stage set and a quality cast in place, does the film deliver? Well, yes… and no.
With WW1 air war movies so rare, it’s an absolute treat to see biplanes and triplanes dogfighting via the use of computer graphics, albeit graphics that are starting to show their age just a little. We see some absolutely massive engagements in this film that would be impossible to film in real life even if there were dozens of aircraft available to film it, and they are without doubt very exciting to watch.
The main storyline (or at least how I see the main storyline), is also very good. We see Manfred von Richthofen as a young boy hunting in a forest with siblings before observing a plane overhead (and presumably having a fascination with flight instilled in him at that moment), but are soon rushed forward to him as an up and coming pilot who fanboys a little for the German aces of the era.
During these early sequences in the film the soundtrack leaps and bounds along, swirling with an almost swashbuckling vibe as we see von Richthofen and his contemporaries as carefree, almost piratical types. They are all out of uniform to varying degrees, augmenting their kit with bright ski jumpers, fur coats, civilian leather jackets and the like. There is a strong sense of them being sportsmen (the term “knights of the sky” is often used about this era when it comes to the code of honour many pilots operated on), and there’s even a scene early in the film where von Richthofen berates his brother Lothar for trying to kill an enemy pilot rather than just downing his machine.
As the film progresses and most of the pilots we meet early on are progressively killed in action, the soundtrack becomes more muted. It’s the same main theme, but played in a slower, melancholic way. You also notice the pilots in von Richthofen’s squadron are increasingly in uniform, underpinning in a subtle way that things are far more serious than at the start of the film. The war is going bad for Germany and, from the air, the likes of von Richthofen and his men can see the carnage firsthand.
All of this is very good. There’s even a strong anti-war feeling present which I’m not sure entirely fits with how the real von Richthofen would have felt, but as representative of how a modern audience sees WW1 and how we’d like the hero of this story to feel and act about it, the sentiment is right.
So where doesn’t the film deliver? Two areas. First, the Lena Headey character is introduced as a nurse who looks after von Richthofen when he has a serious head injury about halfway through the film. This is accurate. He was wounded in this way, and the nurse – Käte Otersdorf – was indeed a real person. That’s fine. But the movie then slips into “Hollywood mode” (which as a German-British film it should have avoided), and starts a love affair between the two. This begins in an almost Top Gun kind of way, with von Richthofen as the arrogant pilot and Otersdorf as the similarly aged – but much more mature – love interest. She resists him for a time, then falls for his charms. Blech.
The second area is the Joseph Fiennes character, (Arthur) Roy Brown. Again, a real person and one who has long been credited in some quarters as the man who shot down von Richthofen. In the film, however, this is romanticised to a bizarre level. In 1916, von Richthofen shoots down Brown. This never happened. Brown is found seriously injured in his machine by von Richthofen and his squadron mates who pull him from the wreck and is then nursed by Otersdorf. This never happened. Off-screen, Brown goes to a POW camp, but escapes. This never happened. Brown and von Richthofen meet again in the sky, with both needing to ditch. This never happened. On the ground near their ditched machines, von Richthofen and Brown hang out, drink from Brown’s hip flask and talk about life. This never happened. At the end of the film it’s strongly hinted that Brown killed von Richthofen in the air and he then smuggles Otersdorf to see the Baron’s grave on the allied side of the lines. Broadly speaking this never happened, especially if we take the most likely outcome – that von Richthofen was killed by groundfire – to be the actual reality at hand. It’s really quite weird.
This leaves me with a film that I think looks good, has a strong “core” story, and is played by a bunch of terrific actors who I find engrossing to watch, every time I see the film. But it’s equally hard to go past the Käte Otersdorf love story without a groan, or finding the over-romanticising of von Richthofen and Brown’s relationship to be really hard to stomach, either. It creates a movie with almost two personalities; one historical and realistic. The other fanciful and a bit cringe-inducing.
For all of that, however, I still really enjoy this film every time I watch it and I commend it to you if a WW1 movie, mostly set in the skies, is in your bailiwick. They don’t make them like this very often!