Dark Blue World

Dark Blue World (2001)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Still Gallery, Trailers

The summer of 1940 saw one of history’s most important battles being waged in the skies above England. The vastly outnumbered and outgunned Royal Air Force managed to fend off the mighty German Luftwaffe and their success in the sky saved Britain from what many feared would be an inevitable invasion.

But an Allied victory was much in doubt right up until the end of the battle and the high casualty rates suffered among the British pilots forced Fighter Command to approve the use of squadrons composed entirely of foreign pilots. While pilots from the other Commonwealth countries were heartily accepted into the ranks, these Polish, Czechoslovakian, Belgian, and Free French volunteers and refugees were deemed to be nothing more than good publicity and more a liability than an asset in the air.

The record was to prove the naysayers wrong as these pilots were fierce and fearless fighters who racked up some very impressive kill ratios. The Czech aviator Josef Frantisek arguably had the best record of any RAF fighter pilot in the battle with 17 confirmed kills although most official histories have him listed in third place.

"Dark Blue World" is a film from the Czech Republic that sheds some light on these oft-overlooked warriors who saw their own country defeated by Germany yet continued to fight for a foreign government in the very meager hope of one day helping to liberate their towns and families.

The film opens on a sepia-toned scene depicting a pilot and his love sharing a quiet moment together in his airplane. This sequence is but a fond memory of Frantisek Sláma (Ondrej Vetchý), a Czech pilot who fought bravely to defeat the Germans and return to his homeland only to find himself labeled a traitor by the post-war Communist rulers. Interred in a labor camp alongside the very Fascists he once fought against, Sláma begins to recall the events of his past life while at the same time trying to come to grips with his present.

During the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, Sláma and his young friend and student Karel Vojtisek (Krystof Hádek) escape to England where they soon find themselves fighting the Germans from the cockpits of their RAF Spitfires. Shot down over England, Vojtisek bails out and finds his way to the home of Susan Whitmore (Tara Fitzgerald), a lovely woman whose husband has been missing at sea for quite some time and whose house is full of evacuee children sent to the countryside to escape the bombings in London.

During a moment of weakness, the two sleep together and Vojtisek falls madly in love with Susan. But, alas, Susan finds herself attracted to Sláma and it’s only a matter of time before Vojtisek realizes that his best friend has stolen his girl. Can the two men set aside their differences or will their competition on the ground carry over to their flying as well?

Directed by Jan Sverák, who first came to international attention with his 1996 film "Kolya," and written by his father Zdenek, "Dark Blue World" is a stunning film. Now this type of love triangle story has been done to death (think "Pearl Harbor") but the unique slant that this film takes makes for a wonderfully engaging and often surprising tale.

"Dark Blue World" is presented on DVD in 2.35:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and features a solid video transfer. The image is sharp and clean with no noticeable defects, compression artifacts, and only some slight edge enhancement. Colors are rich and stable and black levels are quite good as well. There is some minor film grain but this really is an outstanding video presentation.

"Dark Blue World" was a very low budget production and the special effects sequences use a combination of real aircraft, models, footage from earlier films, and CGI. While most of the flying scenes look quite good, there’s no denying that the CGI work is a little rough around the edges and all too noticeable. At times I thought I was watching a computer flight simulator rather than a movie. I mention this not to detract from the film but rather to set expectations at a realistic level in terms of the accuracy and overall impact of the visuals.

Audio comes in a Czech <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix> although some of the dialogue is in English since much of the film takes place in England. This track features very good dynamic range with the nice deep bass one would hope to hear in a war movie. But this is very much a front-loaded mix and even when the surrounds do kick in the effects sound rather forced and contrived. Dialogue is a bit hard to hear at times while the musical score also sounds a bit muffled. The sound effects are natural sounding and really add to the "you are there" feel but the fact that they are louder and much livelier than the other components of the soundtrack give them an artificial sound much the same way that the CGI graphics give the visuals a video game look.

The DVD also contains a number of quality bonus features. First up is a running commentary with director Jan Sverák and producer Eric Abraham. This is precisely the type of informative discussion that one would hope to have accompany a film based on an actual historical event. The two men cover all the bases of filmmaking as well as offering a brief primer on the Battle of Britain, the role of the Czech pilots, and Czechoslovakia’s broader war and post-war history. The facts presented here give the listener a greater appreciation of the film and the history behind it. Jan Sverák’s English is quite good so the track is relatively easy to listen to and understand.

Next up is the 33-minute featurette "The Making of ’Dark Blue World’." This piece complements the <$commentary,audio commentary> very nicely as it touches upon many of the same areas while offering much more in the way of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews.

The 7-minute "Making of Visual Effects" piece further explores the ingenious methods used to bring to life an aerial armada that hasn’t existed in 60 years. This featurette is silent and is made up of before and after shots detailing the various methods used to create the special effects. I’ve been a bit hard on the visual effects in this review but this piece really sheds some light on the hard work that went into making this film look as good as it does.

The "Aerial Symphony" runs for just over 2 minutes and features some of the breathtaking flight sequences set to music from the film while the 10-minute "Photo Montage" offers production stills also set to music.

Finally, Czech and English versions of the theatrical trailer are offered as well as trailers for "From Here to Eternity," "Divided We Fall," and "Black Hawk Down."

"Dark Blue World" is an amazing movie that holds much appeal for history, drama, and foreign cinema buffs. While the plotline and action sequences are all standard fare, the unique perspective offered by this Czech production propels the story far beyond that of a simple war movie. The film offers an education in a little known aspect of a very famous battle and the harsh price paid by those who gave everything for the Allied cause. Belittled by their English hosts and persecuted by their countrymen upon their return home, these brave Czech pilots have become a mere footnote to history. While the exploits of their English-speaking comrades have become the stuff of legend, the heroic and selfless acts of these fine men were hidden behind the Iron Curtain for fifty years and it’s taken that long for their remarkable story to be told on the silver screen.

While Columbia TriStar often gives short shrift to their foreign film offerings they have certainly done right by "Dark Blue World." What is admittedly a film with a fairly small potential fan base (a Czech war movie?) is given the royal treatment on DVD. The audio and video presentation are fairly solid and the bonus features are uniformly informative and entertaining. "Dark Blue World" comes very highly recommended and I hope that those who tend to shy away from subtitled films will give this one a try. It’s very much a standard war movie but the combination of its little-known historical setting and a story that offers no easy answers or trite happy endings makes this one both entertaining and deeply rewarding.