A few days ago I watched "Wonder Woman", in which the German army in World War One was portrayed as being made up of evil monsters. That was appropriate for the film, since the war was shown as being inspired by Ares, the God of War. "The Red Baron" shows another side. The fighter pilots were the gentlemen of the air. They shot one another's planes down, but they made no attempt to kill one another. The men were instructed, "Stop firing when your enemy is falling. We are sportsmen, not butchers". The pilots on opposite sides of the war respected one another's skills and thought of one another as friends.
This was far removed from the normal foot soldier with a rifle in his hand, where the motto was "Kill or be killed". If a German and a British pilot were shot down close to one another they would sit and chat and share a cigarette. If necessary, they would help one another if one of them was trapped in his plane. Then they would shake hands, promise to visit one another after the war, and then walk off in opposite directions. After a few days they would be sitting in their planes firing at one another again.
If the war had been decided in the air alone, Germany would have won. The German fighter pilots were the world's best. In aerial battles they were outnumbered by at least four to one, but they were always victorious. Manfred von Richthofen, nicknamed the Red Baron, was the best of the best. According to official figures he shot down 80 planes, but he claimed to have shot down more than 20 other planes, which couldn't be confirmed because they fell behind enemy lines.
Manfred was given his nickname because he painted his plane red. In France he was given the nickname "Le Diable Rouge", which I find more appropriate. The colour red was intended to strike fear into the heart of the enemy. It was also to identify himself in the German squadron, to encourage the best British pilots to engage him in battle. It was sport, not war.
The film takes place from 1917 to 1918, when the Germans were already the underdogs. The successes in the air are in stark contrast to the losses on the ground. Manfred's victories are used as propaganda to encourage the foot soldiers to fight harder, sending them to their deaths.
In the end Manfred was shot down by Roy Brown, a Canadian pilot who had volunteered to fly for the British Royal Air Force. Ironically, this was a man that Manfred had assisted after shooting him down a year earlier. Manfred used his scarf to bind Roy's wound, and Roy returned the scarf a few months later. It was all so civilised. Roy laid a wreath on Manfred's grave.
This is a spectacular film that includes dazzling air battles. It's a German film, but it was filmed in English to make it accessible to the international market. In Germany itself the film was a flop, but it was a box office success abroad. The Germans consider it to be bad taste to celebrate their war heroes. The film has also been criticised for highlighting Manfred's romance with the nurse Käte Otersdorf, because in real they were probably nothing more than friends. As a nobleman he wouldn't have embarked on a serious relationship with a commoner. This isn't a problem for me. I understand cinema. In order to make a good film it's necessary to include elements such as romance to balance out the action, so I consider it acceptable to embellish a story by adding details that might have happened.
I find it strange that the film ends without showing Manfred's final battle. After having seen his successes in the air I would have liked to see his death. Maybe it's because there's lack of clarity about what happened. Manfred was shot down during an air battle with Roy Brown, and Roy was officially given the credit, but it's possible that the killing shot was fired by someone on the ground. That's very probable. Roy would have tried to avoid killing Manfred by aiming at the plane, not the man.
|Manfred von Richthofen|
2 May 1892 – 21 April 1918
|Order from Amazon.com|
|Order from Amazon.co.uk|
|Order from Amazon.de|