The story of and tribute to the First World War pilots; Germany's Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron) and his Allied Forces nemesis; Canadian Roy Brown. The two pilots are very different; Brown a war weary modern fighter who ignores the old codes of honour, refusing to raise a toast to his enemy and von Richthofen an aristocrat who outraged by an order to camouflage his squadron's aircraft, paints them in bright colours, claiming that gentlemen should not hide from their enemies, earning himself the moniker 'The Red Baron'. The war becomes personal for both when Brown and his squadron, against convention, attack von Richthofen's airfield, destroying their aircraft on the ground. Revenge comes when von Richthofen, with the help of a batch of new fighters from Anthony Fokker launches a counterattack on the British airfield. The start of a bitter struggle that only one of them will survive...
The (Second) Most Famous Flying Circus Ever
- Von Richthofen and Brown review by Count Otto Black
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Films about anti-heroes are always tricky to pull off. You need a bit of subtlety. And the words "Directed By Roger Corman" do not bode well in that department. Corman was always happier with giant crabs, Hell's Angels, and evil telepathic traffic cones from Venus than he was when trying be profoundly meaningful, and by 1971 he was almost at the end of his directorial career (though he's still alive, and still getting executive producer credits on dreck like "Sharktopus").
Talking of subtlety, you probably remember John Phillip Law as the handsome but blank-faced angel in "Barbarella". He was in a few other things, doing much the same, and here he's as wooden as ever, and often looks slightly brain-damaged. Oddly enough, the Red Baron does suffer slight brain damage late in the film, and Law's attempts to convey this are indistinguishable from the rest of his performance, except when the script clues us in that this is him looking confused because he just had a memory lapse, as opposed to his normal kind of looking confused.
So what we have is a gormless Red Baron who is supposed to be charismatic because he's good-looking, but often comes across as a wee bit "special needs", up against another anti-hero, the Canadian pilot Roy Brown, who is supposed to be hopelessly un-charismatic, and is therefore played by Don Stroud as a miserable, charmless cynic who in terms of likability makes Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle from "The French Connection" look like The Little Mermaid. Everyone else is either horrible or a nonentity, which makes it very difficult to engage with the plot or care what happens to these people.
The worst of it, though, is the script. Almost everything said or done by anybody is some kind of parable or allegory, usually a heavy-handed statement on the horror and futility of war, and many of the characters seem to have psychic powers that enable them to deliver clunky prophetic lectures about World War Two while still fighting World War One, or discuss the pros and cons of becoming a Nazi before they've been invented. Corman obviously means well, but he's laying it on with the proverbial trowel.
Of course, there's plenty of action, almost all of it in the form of plane-on-plane combat. But it's oddly lifeless and very repetitive. It's also sometimes hard to tell who has shot down who, what with the swarms of identical planes (it helps when the Baron decides to liven his squadron's color-scheme up a bit), close-ups of numerous actors wearing the same helmets and goggles as everybody else so you have to memorize the shape of everyone's mouth if you want to know who's still alive at any given point (why couldn't some of them have had facial hair?), and the fact that the stunt pilots can trail smoke to show they've been hit and loop around aimlessly for as long as they like, but the planes can't crash or explode unless they turn into unconvincing models on a different bit of film from all the real ones. Its heart's in the right place, but it's far too preachy for its own good. And it's kind of boring.