The World War I aerial-combat drama Von Richtofen and Brown was supposed to elevate cult-favorite director Roger Corman from the exploitation-flick ghetto into the mainstream, since it was centered around respectable subject matter and made for a major studio. Instead, the film completely derailed his directing career, because Corman walked away from the wreckage of Von Richtofen and Brown to focus on producing. (In the intervening years, he has helmed only one more movie, the 1990 dud Frankenstein Unboand.) The parsimonious Corman has admitted he found the corporate decision-making and economic wastefulness of studio filmmaking distasteful, but it’s also plain watching Von Richtofen and Brown that Corman was a filmmaker who thrived on limitations. His best directorial efforts—the funky black-and-white horror/comedy hybrids of the ’50s, the stylish Edgar Allen Poe adaptations of the ’60s—excel because small budgets forced Corman to substitute ingenuity and wit for spectacle.
Throughout Von Richtofen and Brown, Corman showcases impressive aerial footage of biplanes engaging in dogfights, but the material doesn’t cut together particularly well. Breaking his own cardinal rule of collecting only as much footage as is necessary, Corman accumulated reels upon reels of similar-looking shots that, when assembled, comprise repetitive and hard-to-follow combat scenes. Worse, sequences set on terra firma are no better. The movie’s exceedingly weak script tries to explain how legendary German pilot Baron Manfred von Richtofen (John Philip Law), better known as “The Red Baron,” rose to prominence and eventually clashed, fatally, with Canadian pilot Roy Brown (Don Stroud).
Excepting terrific production values, nearly everything in the movie works against the efficacy of the narrative. Characters are underdeveloped. Key milestones, such as the awarding of medals, are repeated ad nauseam. Subplots are abandoned capriciously. And the attempt at contrasting the two main characters (Brown the crude humanist, von Richtofen the aristocratic hunter) never gels. Compounding these problems are threadbare performances. Law, the tall stud from Barbarella (1968) flattens lines and renders stoic facial expressions. Stroud, a salty character actor, seems adrift in every scene, as if he received no guidance whatsoever about the nature of his role.
So, while the movie’s not a disaster by any stretch—it’s one of Corman’s best-looking films, and every so often a moment connects the way it should—one can easily see why Von Richtofen and Brown failed to generate any excitement for a new phase of Corman’s career. Still, it’s hard to call this turn of events a shame, since Corman had already accomplished so much, and since he spent the ’70s and ’80s training important new directors who made their first movies for Corman’s New World Pictures. Like von Richtofen, Corman was brought down from the stratosphere to the earth with his legacy intact.
Von Richtofen and Brown: FUNKY