Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ondrej Vetchý, Krystof Hádek, Tara Fitzgerald, Charles Dance, Oldrich Kaiser, Linda Ryboyá, Lukás Kantor, Radim Fiala, Hans-Jörg Assmann, Miroslav Táborsky, Thure Riefenstein, Anna Massey
Written by: Zdenek Sverák
Directed by: Jan Sverák
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality/nudity
Language: Czech, German, English, Slovak, with English subtitles
Running Time: 112
Date: 11/01/2002

Dark Blue World (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Triple Czech

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

These World War II romance movies can seem like a trap. On the one hand, they're pleasant and innocuous enough while you're watching them, but nothing really stays with you. On the other hand, if you don't like it, you feel you're disparaging a whole generation of veterans, not to mention the brave souls who are fighting for our honor right now.

To be frank, after seeing Dark Blue World you may have a hard time separating it from Pearl Harbor or Divided We Fall or The Man Who Cried or Captain Corelli's Mandolin or Charlotte Gray. I liked a couple of these films and did not like some of the others, but they're all basically attempts to recreate Casablanca -- a romance heightened by the backdrop of war, where any number of events could rip a new love apart.

Director Jan Sverák, who won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for Kolya in 1997 and will probably be nominated again this year, says in the press notes that he wanted to pay tribute to the brave Czech fighter pilots who escaped the Nazis and joined the British Royal Air Force to continue fighting. But Sverák's main focus is a forgettable and slightly forced love triangle set during this time of upheaval.

Pilot Franta (Ondrej Vetchý) and young trainee Karel (Krystof Hádek) become friends in Czechoslovakia before escaping to England together to join the RAF. The film plays up the comedy while we wait for the men to fly their first mission. They grow restless, and we learn little things about the men who will eventually be killed -- one young pilot likes to draw but has no talent for it. Another gets "the runs" before each mission. These little character details are supposed to make us feel bad when they get shot down.

Karel's plane crashes in a field and he survives, making his way to a nearby house. There he meets the older and beautiful Susan (Tara Fitzgerald, from Mark Herman's wonderful Brassed Off). She takes care of him and explains that she's married but doesn't know if her husband is still alive or not. They make love and Karel leaves, smitten.

He brings his best friend Franta to meet her, and what do you suppose happens? Susan falls madly for the older, more experienced man, and they begin an illicit affair. The younger man flies off in a jealous rage when he discovers the ruse.

Sverák does his best to make this romance stick, but it's hard to believe that Susan would drive herself onto the RAF base to see Franta after only one meeting, and a pretty dull one at that. Sverák also employs such simplistic symbols as a white helium balloon that floats down from the barracks ceiling and pops just as Karel storms out of Franta's life forever.

In between the romance scenes we get a few flying missions and the poor Czech pilots keep getting taken by surprise and plunging into the ocean. I was reminded of Josef von Sternberg's Jet Pilot (1957), which made far more interesting use of flying scenes, though Dark Blue World has the modern-day advantage of big explosions and computer effects.

And to make the story seem even more tragic and timeless, Sverák and his writer father Zdenek Sverák play the whole thing as a flashback, with Franta a prisoner in post-WWII Czechoslovakia. (The film explains that the Czech RAF fighters were not welcomed back home after the war.)

The problem is that Casablanca is Casablanca and Dark Blue World is not. It succeeds on some level because of the nostalgia factor, but it fails to take into account 60 years of audience sophistication (I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but bear with me). We can be lulled by Dark Blue World easily, but we cannot be stimulated by it until it updates its rusty tactics.{subid}&url=hitlist.asp?searchfield=marvel
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