The Red Baron -- Film Review

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This hagiographic movie portrait of Germany's World War I flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, better known to posterity and followers of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip as the "Red Baron," is most impressive while bi- and tri-planes dodge and shoot at each other in the sky. On the ground, the film falls pretty flat. Rather than examining the cult of hero worship that sprang up around Richthofen and his "Flying Circus," writer-director Nikolai Muellerschoen instead indulges in the romance of aerial combat while celebrating its gallant young poster boy.

The film, made in English with mostly German actors and crew and cut by about 20 minutes from its original European release, gets a limited U.S. run beginning March 19 before its DVD debut June 1. Boxoffice will be exceedingly modest. War-movie and History Channel buffs may find nuggets worth examining, but Muellerschoen can't shake off his nostalgic mindset to deliver a film with any perspective or point of view.

What the movie has going for it is a youthful cast -- reminding you how very young pilots were in the first war, where aviation mattered -- and spiffy visual effects. Indeed all the aerial dogfights were created in a CGI environment. No plane actually left the ground.

Those dual attributes provide a sense of the intoxicating atmosphere among the world's first combat pilots, where "kills" became a matter of pride and champagne got sipped following exhilarating victories. No nasty, cruel deaths in the trenches for these boys, who like Richthofen often came from wealthy or titled families that earned them much more glorious lives -- and deaths.

Dramatically, the film follows the flyer's service career from the time he joins ace pilot Oswald Boelcke's squadron in 1916 until he gets shot down and killed in April 1918. He racks up kills, meets a pretty nurse, writes an autobiography and is made to understand before his death that the German government is using him for propaganda purposes and that war is a very nasty business if one is not in the air.

The film never engages you though with the camaraderie between the Baron and fellow flyers or the overall war strategy so you understand the importance of any of the air battles. Even the love affair is lame.

Young German actor Matthias Schweighofer carries the film nicely and looks like he might have been up to a more complex portrait of the flying ace. In "The Red Baron," the character is gallant, romantic and friendly. In reality, the man was rumored to be cold, distant and all too willing to viciously machine gun helpless enemy pilots trying to escape cockpits of doomed aircraft. It all depends on which source you consult.

Whatever the reality, the film never delves into how much Richthofen came to believe in his own myth. An imaginary meeting between him and Canadian Captain Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes), who some credit with killing him, and most of the romance between the Baron and his nurse (Lena Headly) are designed to bring home the brutal reality of war.

The Baron looks appropriately war-weary by his final flight but insists on staying in the air anyway. The writer-director sees this as heroic. Others might see this as suicidal or delusional. The latter is never a possibility in "The Red Baron."

The film's real heroes are production designer Yvonne von Wallenberg for her authentic-looking air and battle fields and one throwaway shot of old Berlin's now obliterated Potsdamer Platz; the terrific costumes by Gudrun Schretzmeier; and Klaus Merkel's untethered camera that maneuvers through real and CG realms with graceful dexterity.

Opens: March 19 (Monterey Media)
Production companies: Niama Films
Cast: Matthias Schweighofer, Lena Headly, Til Schweiger, Joseph Fiennes, Volker Bruch, Steffen Schroeder, Alex Prahl
Director/screenwriter: Nikolai Muellerschoen
Producers: Dan Maag, Thomas Reisser, Nikolai Muellerschoen
Director of photography: Klaus Merkel
Production designer: Yvonne von Wallenberg
Music: Dirk Reichardt, Stefan Hansen
Costume designer: Gudrun Schretzmeier
Visual effects executive produer: Thilo Kuther
Visual effects supervisor: Rainer Gombos
Editors: Olivia Retzer, Emmelie Mansee, Adam P. Scott
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes
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