LYT review: THE RED BARON

Alas, this BARON is barren, more dead than red. And while it’s often just disappointing when a movie isn’t what you’d hoped, THE RED BARON holds a particular type of disappointment – and I’m not just talking about the people who, like my girlfriend, are bummed that Snoopy isn’t in it. Frankly, given the liberties the movie takes with history, they might as well have added a flying beagle, and possibly multiplied their grosses exponentially.

No, I’m talking about the fact that you don’t see many vintage aviation movies to begin with, so when one comes out and it isn’t too good, it hurts the market for any of them – there have been, for example, two vastly more acclaimed aviatrix biopics in recent years that did not see release here: Jan Troell’s SA VIT SOM EN SNO and the Korean CHEONG YEON (BLUE SWALLOW), the latter of which I found on bootleg DVD in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Star Trek actor Alexander Siddig was going to direct a movie about the Russian female biplane-flying squadron called “The Night Witches,” but that didn’t end up happening, and I fear for the in-development project AVIATRIX, which focuses on the women’s cross-country air race that Mira Nair’s AMELIA built up to and then crapped out on. Not to mention Cameron Diaz was at one point attached to do a Jackie Cochran biopic.

Redbaron

AMELIA and THE RED BARON both share the same primary weakness. They take a historical figure known for feats of derring-do in the air, then focus almost the entire movie upon their love life instead, showing aerial sequences only in the briefest of edits, and neglecting others completely. AMELIA often defaulted to archival newsreel footage, while THE RED BARON frequently fades out in the middle of battles to cut directly to the aftermath, in which characters on the ground discuss an outcome we didn’t get to see.

For those who didn’t know, Manfred von Richtofen (Matthias Schweighöfer) was a German flying ace in World War I, a man so certain of his greatness as a flier that he painted his plane bright red to let the enemy know he was coming. He’s a well-known figure in Europe – as a kid, I remember a comic-book parody of him in the English funny pages named “Baron von Reichs-Pudding” – but it would seem an uphill battle to portray either of the World Wars onscreen from the point of view of the “bad guys.” Thus, this cinematic baron is depicted as close to a pacifist as an outstanding soldier can be: he tries to knock out the planes without killing the pilots, he dislikes patriotic propaganda, advocates surrender when he realizes the tide is turning, and goes bravely toward a losing battle rather take an easy out and let someone else die in his place. Biplane-battle movies have long held that the pilots maintained a code of honor; this may be a self-created myth, but it’s one that’s been around since the actual war.

Also, just so everybody knows this isn’t the war involving Nazis, we are shown very clearly and upfront that one of the baron’s squad has customized his plane with a big Star of David; later, when he is killed, the point is strongly made that a Rabbi, rather than a priest, needs to be contacted.

The story here focuses on two things – his rivalry with Canadian pilot Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes, wearing John Lennon-style circular sunglasses while flying), and his romance with nurse Kate Otersdorf (Lena Headey, faking a sexy French accent). Both narratives are substantially exaggerated for dramatic purposes: early on, Richtofen shoots down Brown and helps Otersdorf to save his life; later, the two pilots meet up on the ground and share a friendly conversation. Neither of those two things happened, and the mystery of how exactly Richtofen met his final end – ironically akin to Amelia in that respect – means the filmmakers don’t even attempt to show us a final battle.

The aim here is a classic Hollywood-style adventure-romance, which is to say not essentially big on history, but big on sweeping moments, snappy dialogue, sexy leads, and a fairly simple story. You can predict lines like, “I don’t hate you – I pity you!” and laugh at snappy sayings like, “I am not going to be a sitting duck! I have got wings!” Perhaps cheesiest of all is Brown’s line about the way in which the war has split up families that spread through different countries: “Your love life sure ignores them borders!”

However, a classic Hollywood movie – take WINGS or HELL’S ANGELS, for example – would actually have taken a bunch of real biplanes up to the sky with cameras, after teaching the actors to fly. And that would have made everything else worthwhile. The digital rendering nowadays is indeed impressive, but it feels like these filmmakers couldn’t afford enough of it, which is why key deaths in combat tend to occur off-camera. One also does get a sense that the actors were all stationary during the scenes, as they don’t really seem to be feeling the swoops and dives.

And the romance is just as hard to believe, in large part because there have been noticeable trims to the movie that hurt its credibility. Prior to the L.A. screening, attendees were informed that the movie has been cut down, though whether this is since the German premiere or merely from the work-print is not clear. The cut scenes likely go a long way to explain how Kate goes from avoiding the Baron, who she sees as a killer, to suddenly loving him unabashedly. At one point, she asks him to “Take me to the air again!” Again? They never went, that we saw (though it would have been a good, credible seduction move).

Except, wait. There was this scene from an early trailer, now nowhere to be found in the final cut:

 Lenagoggles

(This is a particular bummer to me – I have a bit of a thing for aviatrixes, so if you cut them out of your movie completely, you piss me off. But that’s far from the only gripe here.)

Later, Kate gets mad that the Baron is still flying, and says he lied to her, as if he somehow made her a promise he would stop...yet as far as we’ve seen, he never said anything like that.

But this might still be salvageable if all the flying stuff held up, and unfortunately, it disappoints; the much-maligned FLYBOYS is a better bet, as it at least has one killer Zeppelin fight. Also, why does that notable English pilot have a heavy-metal goatee? Surely not RAF regulation in 1916?

Sadly, ya don’t gotta be Snoopy to shoot this BARON down.

(THE RED BARON opened yesterday in select U.S. cities, and is already out on DVD in Europe)

 

Luke Y. Thompson is an actor, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood.

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