"Dark Blue World," the most recent movie by Jan Sverak ("Kolya"), is a defiantly old-fashioned World War II romance that sends us soaring skyward, then crashing back to earth. With deep sympathy and a little schmaltz, Sverak portrays the Czech contingent of the British RAF during the Battle of Britain, and he also shows us a love-triangle story about two young best-buddy Czech fliers who fall in love with the same Englishwoman. That sounds familiar, but "Dark Blue World" is a world away from "Pearl Harbor's" lovelorn flyboy hunks and hell-breaking-loose set pieces. The film mixes unashamed kitsch, thrilling airfight scenes and dark historical drama. But what gives it a special charge is its portrait of the Czech RAF group: what happened to them before, during and after the war.
Sverak's script was written by his actor-screenwriter father Zdenek Sverak (the writer-star of "Kolya") and, like "Kolya," it works partly because it's familiar. The central characters are pilot friends Frantisek Slama (Ondrej Vetchy) and idolatrous young Karel Vojtisek (Krystoif Hadek), who flee Czechoslovakia together after the Nazi occupation and join the RAF under stiff-upper-lip wing commander Bentley (Charles Dance).
At first, they take joy in flying and fighting together against the hated Nazis. They're like the pilot buddies in the World War I or peacetime flying movies of Howard Hawks ("The Dawn Patrol," "Today We Live" or "Ceiling Zero"): reckless, carefree, full of zest and courage. As in Hawks' films, it's a woman who tears them apart: Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), whose husband is missing in action and who ends up sleeping with both Czechs.
Karel meets her first, when his plane goes down near her house and he has to stay the night in her comfortable country home. Karel is a virgin, and when the beautiful, experienced Susan impulsively sleeps with him, he falls madly in love. She doesn't. And when Karel shows up later to show her off to Frantisek, a stud in the bedroom as well as in the skies, there's a predictable mess. Susan sloughs off Karel and ignites an affair with Frantisek, breaking Karel's heart. The buddies quarrel; the conflict spills over into their air fights - and there's a resolution that comes straight out of those '30s flyboy classics.
All this could rightly be condemned as kitsch, like the corny Ben Affleck-Josh Hartnett-Kate Beckinsale triangle in "Pearl Harbor." But Sverak, the most Americanized of all the new Czech directors, enriches the story by the way he frames it, with scenes of Frantisek in a Czech prison after the war. Telling the story to his cellmates, he relives his brief burst of glory fighting and the ways he lost both his best friend and his British lover - and the people he loved back in Czechoslovakia as well. (I hate to reveal this, but the hero even loses his faithful dog - and, for me, it worked.)
Vetchy is a lucidly expressive actor (a three-time Czech Oscar-winner) and a very knowing, sly camera presence. Hadek is good as well: fresh-faced, youthfully open. Fitzgerald, who usually plays spunky, bright lasses (as in "Brassed Off"), here does a buttoned-up woman, trapped in class and appearances, who briefly lets down her guard. They're all effective, Vetchy most of all, with his subtle projections of guilt, confusion, bewilderment and, finally, terrifying acceptance.
It's a very sad, even terrible story - one that starts off with inspiring moments and gradually darkens into grief. The Sveraks present the pilots as heroes without honor, political casualties. And it's true: After helping defeat the Luftwaffe and turn the tide in one of the 20th century's most crucial conflicts, the Czech pilots returned home not to honor and glory but disgrace and imprisonment. When the communists took over Czechoslovakia, they threw them all in jail, fearing the pilots' military expertise and their ties to the West. The charges were trumped up: And though the pilots were released in the early '50s, they weren't officially rehabilitated until 1991.
They were victims of history and the movie's primary impetus is to free and celebrate them. It does.
Jan Sverak has perhaps the most thoroughly Americanized sensibility of any of the best young Eastern European filmmakers. You don't even need to hear him say that Spielberg is one of his favorite directors; it shows in almost every frame he shoots. If you complained that the story here pushes too many buttons, he'd probably explain that those are the buttons he wanted to push; that's how you fly this kind of plane.
In a way, he's right. But "Dark Blue World" also has an emotion that carries it past predictability into genuine anguish and anger for those wronged pilots, and the ways their lives were wiped out and their heroism forgotten. Kitsch is not necessarily fatal if you sense a real emotional pulse behind it, and that's what "Dark Blue World" has. It's a fitting requiem for heroes forgotten.
3 stars "Dark Blue World" Directed by Jan Sverak; written by Zdenek Sverak; photographed by Valdimir Smutny; edited by Alois Fisarek; production designed by Jan Vlasak; music by Ondrej Soukop; produced by Eric Abraham, Jan Sverak. English, Czech and German, subtitled. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:59. MPAA rating: R.
Frantisek Slama - Ondrej Vechty
Karel Vojtisek - Krystof Hadek
Susan - Tara Fitzgerald
Bentley - Charles Dance Machaty - Oldrich Kaiser
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.