Much like Michael Bay’s mega-budget travesty Pearl Harbor from the same year, Jan Svěrák’s Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět) squanders a fascinating true story in order to indulge in a tepid love triangle. The sad thing is, while all of Pearl Harbor is awful, it’s only the romantic element of Dark Blue World that brings it into disrepute, tainting an otherwise rousing tale.
The film opens in 1950 with our main protagonist, Franta Sláma (Ondřej Vetchý) banged up in a gloomy prison, having been incarcerated by the communists for his time serving in the RAF during World War II. We then flashback to before the war and happier times with his girlfriend before the Germans marched in.
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With the Czechoslovak Army disbanded, Franta and a group of other fliers, including his young hotheaded protégé Karel Vojtíšek (Kryštof Hádek) escape to England to join the RAF. Once there the pilots are sidelined initially, taking part in pointless exercises, learning English, and gazing enviously at the dogfights going on in the skies above them. As the Battle of Britain intensifies the RAF is in constant need of more pilots, so our boys soon get their chance. After a few teething problems they’re soon gunning down German planes with glee, getting a little revenge for all the folks back home…
The dynamic changes between the two friends when Karel is shot down and bails out near the delightful country cottage of Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), a plummy thirty-something waiting in hope for her MIA husband to come home. She puts the young pilot up for the night and instantly falls for his boyish charms, and into the sack with him.
Susan regrets it and cuts off their relationship before it can get started. But not before she’s also met Franta and fallen head over heels for him too. The pair then start an ill-advised affair behind Karel’s back…
Dark Blue World has the feel of a good old fashioned war epic, and when I say it’s like a rainy Sunday afternoon movie I mean that in a positive sense. It reminds me of the kind of war films I loved watching with my parents when I was a kid, stuff like The Dam Busters, Ice Cold in Alex and The Great Escape. The nostalgic vibe is assisted by regular Svěrák collaborator Vladimír Smutný’s handsome, rose-tinted cinematography.
We’re no strangers to nostalgia and rose-tinted views of the world in a Svěrák movie, but that stylistic choice makes a lot of sense here. The prison bookends (and occasional scenes set there throughout the film) are shot in drab blues and stark greys, reflecting the harsh and hopeless environment the former heroes found themselves in. In contrast to that existence, the pilots must have looked back on life in the RAF with some sense of nostalgia.
While the pilots were in grave danger while fighting against the Luftwaffe, life on the ground doesn’t seem all that bad, drinking beer, chatting up local girls and generally lounging about looking dashing while waiting to scramble to their sexy Spitfires.
Nothing makes the bollocks of a certain type of Englishman swell more than the sight of a Spitfire in flight. I’m not one of those guys, but I would’ve loved to see this film in the cinema for the growl of the engines. Svěrák used real planes wherever possible, and the Spitfires reportedly cost $10,000 an hour to rent. It was totally worth it.
Dark Blue World is a good looking film and looks like it cost a hell of a lot more than its modest eight million Euro budget. The financial limitations show somewhat in the dogfights, where Svěrák is forced to mix real planes with some Playstation-level CGI and recycled footage from Battle of Britain. By this time we’re invested enough in the characters to give it a pass and it doesn’t really affect the intensity of the fighting too much, but it is a little jarring.
Far more harmful to the film is the love triangle. There’s very little chemistry between Fitzgerald and the male leads, and neither the writing or performances do much to convince us that she’d fall into bed with not one but two Czech flyboys who show up at her door. It’s especially difficult to believe with Vetchý, who’s a charming enough lead but whose character barely makes eye contact with her before they’re suddenly in love. I’ve read that there were many affairs and impromptu bunk ups during WWII because people simply didn’t know whether they were going to live or die from one moment to the next. However, the connection between Susan and the older pilot is so barely perceptible that the whole love triangle thing starts to feel like a plot contrivance.
Franta’s decision to sleep with Susan behind Karel’s back also risks turning the audience against him. He’s our central character and our way into the movie, so it’s a dangerous move. He seems like a decent guy up until the point he steals the girl from his younger mate who obviously idolizes him. We’re then left with scumbag Franta going into the film’s final stretch – which felt odd after I’d lost respect for him – before the movie tries to fob us off with something resembling a bittersweet ending reconciling the two.
All that said, the majority of Dark Blue World is strong enough to survive its undercooked and ill-conceived romance. It’s definitely the best movie to come out in 2001 setting a love triangle against the backdrop of a momentous historical battle. Shame filmmakers don’t trust the real-life drama to hold the audience’s interest for a couple of hours.