In a recent column (Who really killed the Red Baron?) Gene Domagala wrote about Captain Arthur Roy Brown who lived on Wrenson Road in the 1920s. In 1918 the Royal Air Force officially credited the Canadian pilot with downing Manfred von Richthofen, the famous German flying ace of the First World War.
Many of us grew up with the fantasy adventures of Snoopy riding atop his Sopwith Camel doghouse waging epic “dog fights” against the fearsome Red Baron. Popular culture has made a legend of von Richthofen. I wondered how our Canadian hero Roy Brown has been depicted in the movies.
Von Richthofen and Brown (1971)
Movies reflect the mood of their times. At the height of the counterculture movement in 1969, the three most popular films were about outlaws, outcasts, and rebels, all antiheroes at odds with society: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider. Roger Corman’s 1971 film uses Roy Brown’s name to spin a fictional tale. There are spectacular aerial scenes with real vintage planes, but the dialogue is pure hokum and the history is bogus. There was never a rivalry between von Richthofen and Brown.
Captain Brown is portrayed by self-described “surfer dude” actor Don Stroud as a cynical, cocky, ruthless rebel without a cause who doesn’t believe in honour. The real flyer was a young man of integrity and ideals who wrote to his “Dear Papa” that “… it is my duty to go. This is no sudden burst of patriotism or a thirst for adventure or as you used to say “a fightin’ and killin’” and things. This is a terribly serious thing … self has to be put aside.”
The film’s tagline reads, “On April 21, 1918 the Red Baron of Germany and the Black Sheep of the R.A.F met in the skies over France for the last time. One came for a gentleman’s duel, the other – to kill!”
Brown was actually a leader of courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice who wrote of doing good work, not of glory. He risked his life to save his fellow flyers, including Wilfrid ‘Wop’ May on April 21, 1918 in his one and only brief encounter with the Red Baron. Captain Brown never lost a man in his squadron in combat and never left a pilot behind enemy lines.
In one ridiculous scene Stroud seems to be channeling James Dean or Steve McQueen, arriving in camp on a motorcycle and rudely talking back to his new commanding officer while sucking on a toothpick.
In real life Brown wrote in a letter home, “My C.O. is as nice to me as could be, comes in and talks to me as if I were his own son.”
Brown survived constant stress under miserable conditions and suffered severe injuries in crashes. The war took a terrible toll on his health and he died in 1944 at the young age of 50.
The Red Baron (2008)
It’s not just Hollywood that gets history wrong. The Red Baron is a German production which has an even more fictional plot where Roy Brown is shot down by von Richthofen who then saves the Canadian flyer’s life. The two become friendly foes sharing a drink and a love interest in the woman who nurses Brown back to health. Brown escapes from a German P.O.W. camp to return to flying for the “Royal Canadian Flying Corps.” (The Royal Canadian Air Force was not formed until the 1920s.)
Roy Brown actually served in the Royal Naval Air Service which became part of the Royal Air Force in April 1918. The film completely skips the final air battle where the Baron is killed.
The Red Baron is portrayed by a young actor who looks like he stepped out of a boy band, all tussled hair, puppy dog eyes, boyish charm and chivalry. Joseph Fiennes, pushing 40, plays the Canadian and mails in his role as if he just strolled in from a polo match. In fact it was Brown who looked like a schoolboy, only 24 at the end of the war. Von Richthofen was the older, more experienced fighter who had a silver cup made for each of his first 60 victories. Incredibly, the fierce Red Baron is depicted as a sensitive, budding pacifist, in keeping with present day German ideals.
On April 27, 1918, Brown wrote to his “dear” dad that “… It is terrible when you think of it that they should examine a body to see who should have the credit of killing him.”
Most people don’t go the movies for a history lesson, but popular culture affects the way we look at ourselves and the world. What happens when we don’t tell our own Canadian stories? Others tell them, often badly. Truth is the first casualty of war … and war movies.
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