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THE BLUE MAX – Jerry Goldsmith


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director John Guillermin was inspired by the Jack Hunter novel “The Blue Max” and so adapted it for film. He assembled a stellar cast, which included George Peppard as Bruno Stachel, James Mason as General Count von Klugermann, Ursula Andress as Countess Kaeti von Klugermann and Jeremy Kemp as Willi von Klugermann. Set in the waning year of World War I on the Western front, it tells the story of a young man’s rise to glory and his tragic end. Stachel, is a classic anti-hero, a member of the lower cast who is driven by blind ambition. As such he leaves the Wehrmacht to join the Luftwaffe in search of personal glory – Germany’s most prestigious medal, Pour le Mérite, or the Blue Max. The prized medal is bestowed upon pilots for meritorious service and requires 20 dog fight kills. Driven with a grim, and relentless determination Stachel will allow nothing to stand in his way. His raw and unchivalrous demeanor offends his fellow pilots who hail from the German aristocracy and disdain this commoner among their ranks. Stachel’s rise is noticed by General von Klugermann, who seeks to exploit him as a national symbol in an effort to rally a weary public tiring of war. A tryst with the General’s wife only adds to Stachel’s ego and notoriety. While he ultimately succeeds in gaining the coveted prize, he does so by defiantly disobeying orders to defend ground troops. Von Klugermann does not wish to disgrace his ‘hero’ with a court marshal and so selects him to fly a proto-type mono-wing plane whose support struts he knows will not hold up. When Stachel dies in a crash von Klugermann’s dilemma is solved, he gains his “man of the people” hero and his air corps is not disgraced by scandal. The film was both a critical and commercial success.

Being an English project, Ron Goodwin and Malcolm Arnold were both approached for the job, but were unavailable. Goldsmith’s efforts with “In Harm’s Way” and “A Patch Of Blue” in 1965 earned him an invite to join the project. The film was initially temp tracked with works of Wagner and Strauss and he was instructed to provide a robust “Germanic” score. Goldsmith relates that he was initially put off by the temp tracks but found an approach that worked; “By creating the overall mood, I was able to use the more classical means of development and form, such as the passacaglia used in the battle music.” He resolved to create a score that would soar aloft amidst the film’s wondrous aerial cloudscapes. He created three themes to support his score. The Blue Max Theme is glorious, pervasive and underpins his soundscape. Announced by a prelude of flutes and strings its main line rises atop heraldic trumpets and soaring strings, which carry us higher and higher, ever upwards, in an inspiring heavenly ascent that stirs the soul and fills us with wonderment. It retains the honor of one of the finest Main Titles in film score history. The antithesis to the Blue Max Theme is the minor modal Stachel’s Theme, which speaks to the arrogance, grim determination and ruthlessness that drives him to achieve his goal. With its percussive rhythms the theme unfolds as a dark marcia funebre, which informs us that Stachel’s quest will lead to his undoing. The Love Theme is gentile, yet sensual and carried by tenderly by piano delicato. It flows with a subtle dance-like meter, which culminates upon strings passianato.

The “Main Title” is one that will echo through time and in my judgment one of the greatest ever to open a film. We begin with Stachel as an infantry man beset on the ground by horrific warfare. Yet as he hears aircraft his eyes search upwards and we see in him a resolve to leave the hell of the trenches and find glory in the heavens. The Blue Max Theme is presented in all its glory and its soaring ascent perfectly emotes the hunger welled up in Stachel’s soul. Bravo! “The New Arrival” reveals Stachel being driven to his join his comrades in the aerial corps. Goldsmith introduces Stachel’s Theme as a grim marcia funebre, which informs us that Stachel’s quest will bring about his undoing. This affirms to me Goldsmith’s insight and understanding of the film’s emotional narrative. In “A Toast to Bruno” Stachel is shown his quarters where he meets Willi, who observes that he has a picture of Ace Baron von Richthofen wearing the Blue Max. Seeds of conflict are sown when Stachel states his desire for the medal to gain the respect of the people, and Willi replies “Do people respect the medal, or the man?” Hesitant strings play as Stachel enters his quarters and are joined by a heavy Blue Max Theme that arises slowly from the lower register and struggles to ascend as the men discuss the Blue Max.

In “First Blood” we see Stachel in his first mission, which is to destroy a British observation blimp. Strings animato lift and accompany us into a soaring rendering of the Blue Max Theme as Stachel begins his coveted quest. We flow into vintage Goldsmith action writing as the battle is joined. Aggressive strings and snare drums propel the tense action. At 2:22 we segue into “First Victory” where triumphant Stachel soars over his first kill. We share in his victory with a celebratory rendering of the Blue Max Theme. Stachel’s kill goes unrecognized for lack of independent confirmation. Therefore, in “The Captive” he escorts a wounded British plane back to his base to ensure he gets credit, yet is forced to shoot it down over the base as the rear gunner awakes and take aim at him. The men on the ground fail to see this and are appalled. After a string prelude, chirping flutes interplay with a triumphant Blue Max Theme alight with celebratory horns as Stachel brings his prize home. A discordant chord informs us of his kill over the base and we segue at 1:54 into “The Victim” where Stachel is confronted by his commander and peers for his ruthless inhumanity. A contemptuous Stachel cuts off a piece of the plane, flings it at the commander and states, “confirmed”. A dark and discordant rendering of his theme informs us of his compatriot’s contempt. Slowly and with a grim escalation, Stachel’s Theme mutates into a dissonant and grotesque marcia di orrore that reveals both the depth of Stachel’s ruthlessness and the contempt of his compatriots. These two cues are score highlights, perfectly attenuated to the film’s narrative and demonstrate Goldsmith’s mastery of his craft.

“The Cobra” reveals Willi earning the Blue Max and Stachel initially refusing to attend a ceremony honoring the fallen British airmen, rejecting any chivalry towards the enemy. Willi, persuades him to attend but likens him to a cobra for which he must be on guard. Goldsmith uses muted horns and a dark soundscape to emote a grim Stachel’s Theme for the encounter. “The Attack” features Stachel’s squadron bombing allied troops and then soaring upwards to engage British planes. This cue is a tour de force and score highlight. Militaristic snare drums and strings energico propel and lift us into battle and Goldsmith treats us with fine interplay of his Blue Max Theme and Stachel’s Theme. The director dialed out most of this music, which I believe upon viewing was a tragic mistake. The imagery of the battle needed this music!

“The Dinner Party” reveals Stachel at a Berlin dinner party hosted by Countess von Klugermann. Stachel is both attracted to and repelled by the countess. Goldsmith underpins the scene with an intimate expression of his Love Theme on solo piano. Most interesting is that like Stachel’s Theme, it is also a variant of the Blue Max Theme. The kindred nature of these three themes is brilliantly conceived given that they intrinsically connected. After the party in “A Small Favor” a drunken Stachel toys with the countess, which Goldsmith supports with a comic oompah waltz rendering of the Blue Max Theme. As Stachel and the Countess make love in “Love Theme #1”, the truly elegant Love Theme flows tenderly on solo piano delicato, yet gradually gains strength and passion upon strings for a wondrous presentation.

“Intermission – Play Out” features an adaptation of his prelude for the “Attack” cue, while “Intermission–Play In” offers a forthright expression of the Blue Max Theme. “The Bridge” is a score highlight and features a battle of egos by Stachel and Willi. We see the two challenge each other with increasingly more dangerous flying stunts that ends tragically with a fiery crash by Willi. The action writing here does not get any better as Goldsmith propels our combatants with his trade mark staccato strings, heraldic horns, muscular bass and thunderous timpani as flute and piccolo flutter atop the propulsive Blue Max Theme! This is extraordinary! In “Love Theme #2” Stachel and Kaeti continue their affair as Stachel muses regret over Willi’s death. As Stachel muses his theme plays darkly on strings tragico, from out which arises a gossamer like rendering of the Love Theme on solo piano. As they embrace the theme swells and culminates atop strings. The transition here is just superb!

In “Retreat – Part I” and “Retreat – Part II” the score achieves its apogee as Goldsmith employs a classical musical form, the passacaglia, (a bass ostinato in triple meter) to support this extended battle sequence. Stachel’s squadron is ordered to support retreating German troops, yet he defies orders when British planes are seen, as he needs additional kills to achieve the Blue Max. His disobedience is magnified when his compatriots join him aloft and suffer horrific casualties, which decimate the squadron. We open darkly upon ominous bass and timpani as the battle is joined. Militaristic snare drums intensify the action as a portentous Stachel’s Theme rises darkly upon antiphonal horns. Dissonant strings enter and are joined by flutes animato and xylophone, which dance in a fury. Wow! “Retreat – Part II” opens with the jagged passacaglia that is joined by dissonant strings, which inform us of Stachel leading his squadron aloft to their doom. Militaristic snare drums and stings furioso propel the battle as we see Stachel’s squadron losing plane after plane. Stachel’s pursuit for personal glory see’s his theme become a grotesque marcia di orrore as he gains the three kills that take him to 22. This is writing of the highest order. Bravo!

“Stachel in Berlin–Part I” reveals Stachel’s commander ordering him to Berlin for court marshal, yet to his dismay he is advised that Stachel ironically, is instead to be awarded the Blue Max by General von Klugermann. Goldsmith provides textural support for this scene with an array of martial percussion, dissonant woodwinds and chimes, which provide an unsettling ambiance. In “Stachel in Berlin–Part II” food riots have erupted in the capital as we see Stachel be driven through the tumult. Goldsmith provides Stachel’s Theme as a grim marcia funebre, which underscores his fate as well as Germany’s. This is perfectly conceived! In “Nothing Needed” Stachel is joined in his hotel room by Kaeti and we are treated to a rendering of the Blue Max Theme as a wondrous refulgent waltz.

Regretfully much of “Kaeti Has a Plan” was dialed out of the film. This is a score highlight and affirmation of Goldsmith’s genius. Realizing Germany’s imminent defeat, Kaeti entreats Stachel to flee with her. He spurns her offer by affirming his intention to continue his career. His callous offer of a drink suffers a rejoinder as she flings it in his face and storms out. The dichotomous scoring of this scene is well-conceived. In the higher register, elegant strings and longing references of the Love Theme on piano (Kaeti), entwine with repeating plaintive statements of the Blue Max Theme (Stachel) in the lower register. The juxtaposition is sublime and the finale, potent in its fury.

In “Stachel’s Last Flight” the General is informed by his wife that Stachel had confided to her that he had claimed a kill by Willi as his own. To preserve the honor of the air corps he solicits Stachel to fly the new prototype mono wing plane, fully knowing it was structurally unsound and that he would crash. Flutes mysterioso and dissonant strings inform us of the General’s treachery and Stachel’s fate. From this discordance rises a bold, yet grim rendering of Stachel’s Theme with contrapuntal horns, as he marches to his doom. We conclude our journey with “End Title and Cast”, which opens plaintively with a funereal rendering of the Blue Max Theme. From out this dark pall ascends with chimes a refulgent expression of the Blue Max Theme, which soars ever upward to the heavens and brings us to a most satisfying conclusion.

The first 15 tracks on disc 2 feature the original LP release and have never before been released in CD format. I will explore two. “04 First Blood” is an exceptional cue and represents Goldsmith’s original conception. A sparkling Blue Max Theme carries us into battle and evolves into a stunning and militaristic passage that features churning strings, discordant horns, martial drums and a refulgent flute ostinato. We culminate in victory atop a refulgent and celebratory Blue Max Them. This is action writing of the highest order. “23. The Attack (original version)” reveals Goldsmith’s original conception and is vintage modernist action scoring. For me it is a score highlight. Brash trombone fanfare begins an orchestral onslaught that features martial snare drums, staccato strings and a harsh rendering of Stachel’s Theme, all of which join in a ferocious blood lust. The culmination atop the Blue Max Theme brings this astounding cue to conclusion. Bravo!

Please allow me to thank Nick Redman, Neil S. Bulk, La-La Land Records and 20th Century Fox for this extraordinary release of the complete score to “The Blue Max”. The score, which was meticulously restored by Mike Matessino and re-mastered by Daniel Hersch from original stereo elements, offers superb audio quality. We are provided the intended film score on Disc One, and the first-time-ever CD debut of the original LP program on Disc Two, along with bonus tracks that include previously unreleased source music. Folks this is one of Goldsmith’s supreme career efforts. A trio of fine themes support’s the film’s narrative and most interesting is the fact that they are all kindred, with the Love Theme and Stachel’s Themes both derived from the Blue Max Theme. This is perfectly conceived and served to produce superb thematic interplay. The Blue Max Theme, which animates the film, is one of the finest Main Titles in film score history. The action writing is of the highest order and superbly propels the battle scenes. I cannot recommend this score enough and heartily recommend it as essential to your collection.

Buy the Blue Max soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:28)
  • The New Arrival (1:26)
  • A Pretty Medal (1:45)
  • First Blood (2:26)
  • The First Victory (0:43)
  • The Captive (1:49)
  • The Victim (2:36)
  • The Cobra (1:41)
  • The Attack (5:33)
  • The Dinner Party (0:59)
  • A Small Favor (0:58)
  • Love Theme from The Blue Max (#1) (1:19)
  • A Good Man (0:28)
  • Intermission–Play Out (1:08)
  • Intermission–Play In (1:43)
  • The Bridge (3:19)
  • Love Theme from The Blue Max (#2) (1:36)
  • Retreat – Part I (3:16)
  • Retreat – Part II (4:31)
  • Stachel in Berlin–Part I (1:19)
  • Stachel in Berlin–Part II (1:16)
  • Nothing Needed (0:43)
  • Kaeti Has a Plan (3:33)
  • Stachel’s Last Flight (2:01)
  • End Title and Cast (2:45)
  • Main Title–The Blue Max [Original Album Presentation] (2:28)
  • Love Theme from The Blue Max [Original Album Presentation] (1:48)
  • Retreat [Original Album Presentation] (1:27)
  • First Blood [Original Album Presentation] (3:03)
  • Waltz [Original Album Presentation] (1:12)
  • Confirmed Kill [Original Album Presentation] (4:21)
  • The Lonely Victor [Original Album Presentation] (3:32)
  • Intermission Title [Original Album Presentation] (0:44)
  • Bridge Duel [Original Album Presentation] (3:16)
  • Battle [Original Album Presentation] (7:41)
  • Food Riot [Original Album Presentation] (2:32)
  • End Title [Original Album Presentation] (2:38)
  • Watch on the Rhine [Original Album Presentation] (1:48)
  • Pour Le Mérite March [Original Album Presentation] (2:18)
  • Deutschland (German National Anthem) (0:51)
  • Student Song Medley [SOURCE] (2:14)
  • Polish Girl [SOURCE] (0:44)
  • Freut Euch des Lebens [SOURCE] (1:30)
  • Artist’s Life #1 [SOURCE] (0:46)
  • German Parade March [SOURCE](1:31)
  • Artist’s Life #2 [SOURCE] (1:02)
  • Gloria March [SOURCE] (0:26)
  • The Attack (ORIGINAL VERSION) (5:36)
  • First Blood (REVISED OPENING) (0:57)
  • First Blood (DISCRETE VERSION) (2:27)
  • The Attack (ALTERNATE EDIT) (6:34)
  • Retreat Parts 1 & 2 (INTENDED FILM EDIT) (7:21)
  • End Cast (ALTERNATE TAKE) (1:15)

Running Time: 123 minutes 23 seconds

La-La Land Records LLLCD 1296 (1966/2014)

Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Orchestrations by Arthur Morton. Score produced by Jerry Goldsmith. Album produced by Nick Redman and Neil S. Bulk.

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