Compared to the glut of star-studded, high-priced Hollywood mayhem, Jan Sverák's Dark Blue World is bound to seem almost quaint. This rather quiet (and modestly budgeted) World War II movie by the Czechoslovakian father-and-son team who gave us the 1996 art-house hit Kolya tells the story of Czech pilots who flew Spitfires for the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain in such a carefully measured way that any overheated Jerry Bruckheimer fans in the house might find themselves nodding off. But unbridled frenzy is not the only gauge of a good combat picture. Whatever Dark Blue World lacks in pyrotechnics, it makes up for with richly drawn characters, high drama and pointed historical ironies. Pearl Harbor should have been so well furnished.
Director Sverák and his father, screenwriter Zdenek Sverák, are not blind to the attractions of romantic melodrama -- they've even installed a two-flyboys-and-one-girl love triangle of their own -- but the main thrust of the film lies elsewhere, in the powerfully tragic tale of Czechoslovakia itself. The Sveráks only sketch the grim details (their countrymen already know the story), but the flavor of loss emanating from the war and its aftermath is unmistakable. On this side of the Atlantic, we could probably do with a thumbnail recap, so here it is: Emboldened by Neville Chamberlain's infamous appeasement policy, Adolf Hitler threatened the Czechs with annihilation in early 1939, and Czech president Emil Hacha caved in to his demands. On March 15, Bohemia and Moravia became a German "protectorate," and the Nazis established a puppet government in Slovakia. When the Third Reich was defeated, the Russians flooded in. Except for a brief respite called the Prague Spring, which the Soviets crushed in 1968, hardcore communists ruled Czechoslovakia from 1948 until the U.S.S.R.'s demise.
The filmmakers give us a bitter taste of both the Nazi and Red regimes and take pains to remind us that one form of totalitarianism is no less cruel than another.
Not long after we meet the film's heroes -- a dashing officer-pilot named Frantisek Sláma (Ondrej Vetchy, whose features suggest a young Robert De Niro) and his baby-faced protegé, Karel Vojtisek (Krystof Hádek) -- the strutting Germans take over the airfield where they train. "I know how you must feel," the head Luftwaffe man scoffs. "A German officer would put a bullet in his head." Instead, Frantisek, Karel and some of their comrades-in-arms slip off to England to exact revenge. A fifth of the fighter pilots who helped defend England in 1940 were foreigners -- among them Americans, Canadians, Poles and Czechs -- and the Sveráks ably portray not only their heroism, but also their innocence and bewildering sense of dislocation. For the Czechs, English-language lessons are agonizing enough. Waiting for a seat in a Spitfire under the skeptical eye of their British squadron commander (Charles Dance) is worse.
Eventually, though, the expatriate pilots find themselves in the blue-dawn mists over the English Channel, a sky teeming with Messerschmitts and sudden death. The aerial sequences might seem a bit threadbare, at least compared to the high-budget excess of Hollywood war movies (or 1969's lavish The Battle of Britain), but the drama is not. The World War II sequences, aloft and aground, are expertly conceived, revealing the bravery and fear of men in battle as well as their youthful hungers. Shot down over the countryside, young Karel has a brief encounter with a beautiful Englishwoman named Susan (Tara Fitzgerald). He finds himself smitten by first love, then infuriated when his mentor, Frantisek, later becomes involved with the woman. The love triangle tests the limits of friendship and loyalty. Meanwhile, the other pilots in the squadron are appropriately various -- from an elegant pianist named Machaty (Oldrich Kaiser), complete with pencil-line mustache and cigarette holder, who plays the melancholy ballad that gives the film its title, to moon-faced Mrtvy (David Novotny), who's so scared he throws up before every sortie. The Sveráks even provide the obligatory stutterer.
In standard American war movies, such characters have long since become both beloved and shopworn. In Dark Blue World, they take on an added poignancy because of what befell Czechoslovakia's RAF pilots after the war: The communist regime that supplanted the Nazis proved so paranoid about Western influence that it declared these heroes "enemies of the state" and threw them into jail. Dark Blue World's gloomy second narrative, interspersed with the dangerous yet hopeful war scenes, shows Frantisek in a filthy forced-labor camp in 1950, starved and abused by his captors. As if the irony needed any intensification, his cellmate while he's in the infirmary is a captured German doctor named Blaschke (Hans-Jörg Assmann), who was once a member of the SS. It is Blaschke -- not Frantisek -- who expounds on the fate of nations and men. It was not until 1991, a final screen title informs us, that the Czech government recognized the former RAF volunteers for their war service.
In the Academy Award-winning Kolya, the Sveráks helped cut Czech filmmaking loose from its old Soviet shackles with a subtle social fable about a skirt-chasing Prague musician who, against his will, finds himself beguiled by a Russian orphan boy. In its scathing look at a post-war prison, Dark Blue World is more overtly political but just as emotional. Let's hope it signals a completely liberated future for films from Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe.