Should I give the Red Baron 2 or 10 stars?

Fokker Tri Plane
The Fokker Tri plane similar to those both von Richthofen and Werner von Voss used in their last flights. It was slow but climbed like a monkey while possessing terrific handling.

Rotten Tomatoes gives the Red Baron a 20 % tomato meter score with an audience approval of 43 %. I give this German movie 9.5 stars out of ten.

The beginning is riveting. The end is simply a masterpiece. After seeing the beginning of the movie I lost the scent. The movie’s about World War I German pilots so when it occurs to me that the actors are speaking with a British accent, I put the movie on pause and go to the Rotten Tomatoes reviews to check them out. A 20 % tomato rating based on the scores from 25 reviews sent to Rotten Tomatoes is horrible. But the fact that only 43 percent of all viewers liked the movie means I just might like it. This is because I’m an old guy with old fashioned values who feels totally out of sync with the modern generation, which I find to be spoiled, lazy, and fat from eating too much junk food. So I decide to get back to the movie and continue watching it for the time being. The chief reason for my giving this movie a chance was I have always been completely fascinated by World War I fighter aircraft and even more fascinated by Baron Manfred Von Richthofen, the World War I ace of aces, who was responsible for shooting down 80 Allied Aircraft. In his time he was the best of the best, a man who would become the most legendary pilot of all time. And if you don’t believe that consider this. Another German pilot, Erich Hartman would become the top scoring ace of World War II after shooting down 352 Allied aircraft but whose name do you see on one of the most popular pizzas sold in America? Red Baron.

Well, I was wrong. About the only actor in the film who’s English is Joseph Fiennes. Then the movie takes a turn to the usual love plot that destroys far too many war movies. It’s about then that I realize that nearly all the actors are German and that this movie is a German production. So what am I getting here–a German version of “Pearl Harbor” which is 5 % about the bombing of Pearl harbor and 95 % about a love affair that never even happened, and even if it did, who cares? But in spite of this, I keep watching the movie which keeps getting better all the time. The action video of World War I aerial combat is fabulous while the depictions of the fighter aircraft are absolutely stunning.

By the time I get 50 % into the movie I’m hooked. There might be a love affair in the movie, but so what? This is a great war movie that bears no resemblance to “Pearl Harbor”. As to the love object of the movie, I not only care less if she might have existed only as a nurse who treated the Baron for a head wound, who never got past the usual patient-nurse relationship–I prefer to keep her in this movie even if the real Kate was more myth than reality.

I think Kate, is a conveyance that the producers skillfully employed to bring out the humanity of the real Baron, a hero of epic proportions whose humanity and charisma is hidden by the passage of 100 years of time and the very primitive black and white photography and video of the time. And as I’ve already indicated, the ending to this movie is an absolute masterpiece. Without Kate, this particular ending would be impossible. But the invention of Kate is nevertheless a historical inaccuracy which many of the Red Baron’s detractors claim is unacceptable. But to produce a true artistic masterpiece which is what I think this movie is, I find this Historical inaccuracy to be necessary to give this movie the power it conveys. It is likely to bring many viewers to tears.

How about another complete Historical inaccuracy? So far as I know, the Baron never met Captain Roy Brown, an English pilot who will later be credited with shooting down the Baron. The truth is the Baron is likely to have  been killed by Australian  ground fire although the British pilot would be given the credit to boost morale. But early on the Baron shoots Captain Roy Brown’s plane down. (which never happened). But a short time after landing his airplane at the German fighter base, Richthofen and several of his German fighter pilot buddies immediately leave the base to inspect the fallen British aircraft which has crashed only a few miles away. The German pilots save the Englishman’s life when they pull him out of the crashed plane and promptly get him medical care. This never happened either (to Captain Brown) and  later in the film when Richthofen meets Captain Roy Brown again and the pair become fast friend, well that never happened either. At first the complete historical inaccuracies over the Red Baron–Captain Brown relationship really upset me, but after viewing the entire film I realized that the invention of Roy Brown’s coming face to face with the Baron on such occasions was being used like the invention of Kate, as a tool to express the true kinship that actually existed between the German pilots and their English foes that made the pilots of both sides truly worthy of being called “the knights of the air”.

Lieutenant Werner von Voss was only 20 years old when he was killed.
Lieutenant Werner von Voss was only 20 years old when he was killed.

But here’s my favorite Historical inaccuracy of them all. A short time before his death, Werner Von Voss is explaining to the baron that his plane is his entire life. He’s doing something very special to his plane, he tells the Baron. So who exactly is Werner von Voss, you might ask? For one thing during World War I he was second only to the Baron with 48 victories. He’s also quite possibly the greatest German airman who ever lived, perhaps even greater than the Baron himself. But who’s to say who was the greatest of the great? If there is any truth at all to all those old Viking legends about a Valhalla, one can be sure that both men would be living there today as two of the greatest warriors of all time. So how good was Voss? For one thing he was a terrific mechanic who doted on his plane day and night. And as a true knight of the air–Voss was unsurpassed in both skill and bravery.

They don’t show it in the film and some of the movie’s critics fault the movie for not showing the death of Werner von Voss. On his last flight he’s flying a Folker Dr 1. (Richthofen himself would die in a Folker Dr 1 a few months later.) The Folker Dr 1 is the famous tri plane that the Baron would paint a blood red. The plane had a terrific rate of climb and wondrous handling, but it could do only 103 miles an hour. But on his last day of life, Werner von Voss found himself in combat with 7 British pilots flying SE-5 biplanes that would do 130 miles an hour. All 7 of the British pilots were aces credited with at least 5 victories each. Yet Voss took all 7 of them on, and more than held his own for over ten minutes. By the time it was over, Voss had damaged at least two of the enemy aircraft enough to make them crash land while inflicting damage to every single one of his foes with his machine guns. Several of the English pilots would later say that on numerous occasions Voss could have escaped to fight another day by using his superior rate of climb to break off from the British fighters. Instead, he fought on until he was shot down. But during those ten minutes he put on a dazzling display of turning and twisting his aircraft in a series of impossible maneuvers such as the British aces never saw before or would ever see again.

SE-5 fighter plane
Much faster at 130 mph to the tri plane’s 103 mph top end in most respects the SE-5 was superior to the Fokker DR-1 tri plane. But not in the hands of a master such as Werner von Voss.

As two of the victorious English aces later reported. (Arthur Rys-Davids would shoot down 25 German planes while McCudden would shoot down 57 German aircraft).

“As long as I live I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who single-handed fought seven of us for ten minutes and also put some bullets through all our machines. His flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent, and in my opinion he was the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see.” James McCudden

“If I could only have brought him down alive…” Arthur Rhys-Davids to James McCudden

The film could have shown the last legendary flight of Werner von Voss. Instead, it shows the Baron hearing about it from a British communication complaining about a German pilot that had been recently shot down who had stolen a British Bentley engine which he had then stuffed into his Fokker Tri plane. At that moment the Baron knew that the German pilot who had just been killed could only have been Werner von Voss. But of course the real Werner von Voss never put a Rolls Royce engine into his German fighter. But the way the incident was played off, as untruthful as it was, it was a terrific convention to show just what kind of man Werner von Voss was–a man so dedicated to his airplane and so dedicated to his craft that no one else could touch him. This was a man who was forever tinkering in an endless search for perfection and whose flying skills were so awesome that it took 7 British aces 10 minutes to kill him. This was a hero for all time.

Manfred_von_Richthofen
Baron Manfred von Richthofen was only 25 when he was killed.

No doubt the Baron’s grief reached the lowest ebb it had ever been with the death of his friend, mentor and rival, Werner von Voss. And I think that in spite of my wanting to see the immortal combat death scene of von Voss, the little lie of the Bentley engine in a German fighter served as an even more powerful tool for convincing the audience how great Voss really was along with the very powerful bond between the two German aces.

And this now brings us to the final scene of the movie. Like a Wagnerian opera the 2nd half of the movie slowly shows the tragedy that is about to unfold. One by one nearly all of the Baron’s comrades are killed. He sees his own end approaching, and yet, he’s unable to do anything about it. And this is where the historical unfact of the nurse who loved him comes in. The film focuses upon Richthofen’s final hours. You know the man’s going to die, and by now you thoroughly like him. He’s fun. He’s capable of loving a woman to the utmost. He is a wonderful friend to have. To his enemies he’s a chivalrous man without equal. Finally you see him fly away through his lover’s eyes never to return. The last scene is Kate being escorted by Captain Roy Brown to the Baron’s grave two weeks later. Flowers have been placed on the grave by British air force pilots. Two white ribbons have been placed across the flowers that read, “To our Friend and Enemy, Manfred von Richthofen.” This ending scene recalls the beginning of the movie when the Baron, Werner von Voss and their pals disobey orders from their superior by flying over an English funeral to throw a similar bouquet of flowers and note on the grave of a British airman they had shot down. As for the third appearance of Captain Roy Brown, one must remember that he’s the man combating the Baron when the Baron gets shot down. Once again he symbolizes the chivalry, and mutual respect for their adversaries that the British and German fighter pilots shared along with the great dangers they shared.

The death of Richthofen was of course the stuff of legends. No one knows for sure whether one of Captain Roy Brown’s bullets got lucky and killed him or whether the Australian infantry nailed him with a machine gun. Again, no doubt it was a machine gun from the ground that shot him down. Or perhaps even from an infantryman’s rifle. But that’s not the point. A single .303 bullet entered his chest severely damaging his heart and lungs. But in spite of it, he was able to land his aircraft practically undamaged before dying in the cockpit muttering something like, “I’m kaput” to the first ground troops to get to his plane.   Like Voss’s, his death was worthy of a Wagnerian opera.

The movie’s not quite perfect which is why I give it 9.5 stars out of 10. The historical inaccuracies are to me marvelous conveyances that are fully intended to put a new spin on both the Baron and Werner von Voss. The acting is superb. Matthias Schweighoffer plays a completely likable and believable Manfred von Richthofen. Both the beginning and end of the movie are unforgettable. And now that I’ve seen it I want to find out a lot more about both the Baron and Werner von Voss.

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