I’m using the alternative title for Roger Corman’s 1971 WWI action movie; Von Richthofen and Brown is the other one, but it’s one that suggests the two-hander vein of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Little Fauss and Big Halsy. But the two men mentioned barely cross paths other than in the final duel, and there’s no camaraderie between then; Baron Manfred Von Richthofen fights for the Germans, and Roy Brown is a Canadian in the Royal Air Force.
Corman’s film was developed not as an exploitation cheapie, but as a big studio epic, and this plush United Artists production has the kind of sweep and scope of The Blue Max. Von Richthofen (strikingly played by John Phillip Law) is very much the hero here, a noble warrior who fights duels and has a strong moral code; in one surprising scene, he berates a young Hermann Goring for shooting medical staff during one of a number of airstrip raids. There’s also a significant late scene in which, with WWI drawing to a close, the Germans find themselves discussing ‘the stab in the back’ which would form the germ of the Nazi movement, and von Richthofen finds himself alone and adrift from the cause he once fought for.
Although with no great claims to historical accuracy, The Red Baron at least has some virtue when it comes to argument; von Richthofen is admired as a man who represents a golden era for aerial soldiery, while Roy Brown (Don Stroud) is somewhat brutish and his approach to flying and combat is rather mechanical. In a rare entry in his directorial career, Corman pulls out all the stops in terms of physicality; his cast and the camera are very much in the sky, and the POV shots of Law and Stroud in their planes would give Top Gun: Maverick a run for their money.
In fact, there’s an impressive 30 minutes of dog-fighting action in The Red Baron, sequences all the more dramatic to watch because of the Baron’s notion that his planes should be painted in garish colours; there’s no hiding place or camouflage in his vision of the crowded skies. Although the action on the ground is inevitably less fluid, Law looks cool AF and there’s lively support from Ferdy Marne, Corin Redgrave, Barry Primus and Stephen McHattie. The Red Baron was a flop at the time of release, but with a strong sense of military nostalgia but no sentiment, it’s a different kind of war film that’s deservedly gained traction over the decades.