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Bringing WWI Air Battles to the Big Screen

Posted on Mon, October 16, 2017
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The Blue Max, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1966

Directed by John Guillerman

Starring George Peppard, James Mason, Ursula Andress, and Jeremy Kemp

The Blue Max (based on the 1964 critically acclaimed novel of the same title by Jack D. Hunter) picks up the genre of World War I (WWI) flying movies laid down in 1930 by The Dawn Patrol and Hell’s Angels, but brings a new complexity to the flying ace protagonist. In this version of the aviation war film, the lead character is more of an antihero, dominated by thirst for personal glory at all cost and a lack of respect from his comrades in arms. Yet, he is found useful by the German high command for propaganda to build morale on the home front. The film accurately portrays the class distinctions that divided the rank and file soldier from the professional German military elite.

One of the major pre-production challenges was finding a filming location that accurately resembled WWI-era France where the original air battles took place. An area outside Dublin, Ireland, called County Wicklow fit the bill. The Irish Department of Defense supported the project with a thousand Army troops on hand for the ground battle scenes and more than a dozen pilots for the aerial combat sequences. Nine detailed flying reproduction WWI aircraft were built for the movie, and 13 biplanes, dressed up as aircraft from that period, filled out the studio’s aerial fleet.

In preparation for the role, the movie’s lead, George Peppard, earned his pilot’s license, but for insurance purposes was not allowed to fly in the film. Peppard and several other actors are seen taxiing the aircraft on screen, but all the flying was done by the professional military pilots. Made before the days of computer generated action scenes, the real flying sequences are among the best ever put on film. Though it is a half-century old, The Blue Max still holds up as visually striking and a compelling drama.

Before the screening on October 20, at both the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, join us for a fun and informative quiz game and test your knowledge of WWI aviation history.

The Blue Max will be shown at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. Request free tickets for the screenings. Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen is a year-long film series showing Hollywood’s finest feature films on World War I, and is part of the National Air and Space Museum’s observance of the hundredth anniversary of the First World War.