This Roger Corman “Epic” Never Gets Off the Ground



Von Richthofen and Brown is not the title of a buddy cop movie. It is the title of a movie that tells the story of the rivalry between World War One flying aces Baron Manfred Von Richthofen, the famed ‘Red Baron,’ and Arthur ‘Roy’ Brown, an auto mechanic from Canada. According to legend, Brown was the man who finally shot down the Baron, killing Von Richthofen and bringing an end to his supremacy in the skies (in reality, most historians believe that the shot that killed Von Richthofen was from an anti-aircraft gun). Roger Corman, king of the D-grade monster movie that populated many a late-night monster movie marathon, had always been fascinated by Von Richthofen’s story. With Von Richthofen and Brown he finally got the chance to bring that story to the screen.

John Phillip Law (Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella) plays the haughty Von Richthofen.  When we first meet him, Von Rich (you mind if I call you Von Rich? Thanks.) is an inexperienced, but cocky pilot. He’s thrilled when he shoots down his first plane, and he takes a trophy from it. “I wish to remember the men I killed” he brags. “You will have no trouble with that,” warns his more world-weary commander. On the other side of the front, Brown (played by Don Stroud, Django Unchained, License to Kill) has joined the British air corps. They think he’s American. When he explains that he’s Canadian, they tell him “that’s half American isn’t it?” Brown’s got some funny ideas about war that puts him at odds with the rest of his squadron, like maybe we shouldn’t be toasting the man who has put so many of their friends in the ground.

The budgetary seams still stand out as much here as did the zippers on the monster from It Conquered the World

So the stage is set for an epic war picture that pits these two men and their contrasting world views against one another. Well, it turns it that it’s not so epic, since this is a Roger Corman picture after all. Corman is famously known for his cheap, cheap monster movies, but his budgets never rose as high as his aspirations. And try as he might, the budgetary seams still stand out as much here as did the zippers on the monster from It Conquered the World. The way Von Richthofen and Brown tells it, there weren’t more than half a dozen guys on each side during the Great War, which make it feel more like the Great Scrimmage instead.

The aerial photography and stunt work are pretty top notch.

Still, the aerial photography and stunt work are pretty top flight notch. Corman couldn’t afford fancy model work and special effect so he had to make do with what he had- actual airplanes and pilots. He shot the sequences using a pair of helicopters and a team of aerial photographers, and even had camera rigs set up in the planes. The planes’ pilots could fly from a position ahead of the camera, which filmed the actors in closeup, selling the illusion that the actors were flying the planes (the actors did get some pilot training, and were taught how to take off and land).

Thematically, the movie is much more of a mess. Corman wants to explore the romantic ideal of chivalry in wartime with the muddy messiness that is real warfare (even during chivalric times). World War I is an ideal setting for exploring that theme, especially when one of your protagonists is an actual manor-born nobleman who likens his role to that of the shining knight on horseback. The fact that the nobleman’s arch-nemesis is a common-born mechanic can only add more resonance to that thread. But the screenplay by John and Joyce Corrington (from a story by Corman) doesn’t mine that rich vein near deep enough. Brown and Von Richthofen are rarely pitted against one another directly- and when they are, neither are personally invested in the battle beyond what their duty to God and country demands. Both men have a more antagonistic relationship with the other members of their squadrons than they do with one another.

Corman was always a clever and efficient director, who was pretty good at getting blood from a stone- most of the time. He does what he can here to tell an ambitious story- one he was yearning to tell for many years- but his reach has exceeded his grasp. This epic war film feels way too small for what it wants to be, and the story and characters aren’t enough to distract us from that fact. Von Richthofen and Brown wants to soar with the eagles, but I’m afraid it’s only just a turkey.