The moments are almost gone before you realize how exquisitely turned, how quietly powerful they are. Shadows of British Spitfire fighter planes caress rolling, verdant countryside, a pastoral prelude to battle. A woman’s face takes on a half-shy, half-bold cast as we watch, over her shoulder, while she contemplates letting herself fall in love.
The gentle flow of genuine emotion in which Dark Blue World immerses the audience becomes all the more refreshing and stirring when the inevitable comparison is made. This bittersweet and heartbreaking tale of two World War II pilots in love with the same woman is everything Michael Bay’s overblown, sticky-sweet Pearl Harbor could have been—but actually could never have been, not in the current Hollywood atmosphere that favors sentimentality over passion and pyrotechnics over drama. Only outside the studio mainstream could such a small, sincere story be told today.
The Czech filmmaking team of director Jan Sverák and screenwriter Zdenek Sverák—who collaborated on Kolya, 1996’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film—draw on their nation’s sad history for their background here. After seizing control of post-World War II Czechoslovakia, the Communists imprison Czech pilots who had flown with the RAF during the war, afraid these men would take up the fight for freedom once again. It’s in 1950 at one of these work camps—from which the inmates are assured there is no parole—that we meet Franta Sláma (Ondrej Vetchy), ironically incarcerated alongside former SS officers. As a lieutenant in the Czech air force, he had been forced in 1939 to step aside for the snide, smugly superior Nazis who took over his air base when the Germans occupied his country.
In the wartime flashback that consumes most the film, Franta and his young protege Karel (Krystof Hádek) flee to England to fly and fight alongside the British, along with other fellow Czech pilots. The culture clash they encounter in England and the initial reluctance of the Brits to put their guests right out in glory’s path make for some crusty humor and some startling imagery, like Czech pilots practicing their formations on bicycles fitted with wings. The situations prompt both incredulous laughter and tears of frustration on behalf of the Czech boys, who just want to get in the air and kill some Germans. But always, there’s an air of heartache hanging over Franta, from the moment he says good-bye to his sweetheart in Czechoslovakia, leaving her under the watchful eye of a jealous would-be suitor. And when he finds himself unexpectedly falling for Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), the same Englishwoman with whom the naïve and romantic Karel has convinced himself he is in love, we know that no happy ending can be in the offing.
The Sveráks—director Jan is writer Zdenek’s son—don’t need to harp on sentiment. All we need to know, all the emotion we need to feel, is on the sad, hard faces of Vetchy (who sports the determined demeanor of a younger DeNiro) and Fitzgerald (a tough-as-nails practicality beneath her prettiness). The restraint on the part of the filmmakers isn’t limited to the emotional, either. Plane crashes, dogfights and explosions are all staged with an astonishing lack of artifice, glorification and the blow-’em-up glee that characterizes Hollywood film—and Pearl Harbor in particular—as though stuff blowing up were the story, and not how the people around the stuff blowing up deal with it.
But it’s attitude that distinguishes Dark Blue World and makes it so worthwhile. The Sveráks have made a glorious, tremendously knowing film that recognizes that grownups don’t stamp their feet and rage at the world for failing to provide an appropriate environment where their personal dreams can take flight. Grownups, like Franta, Susan and, finally, Karel, realize that sometimes what’s important is larger than themselves. They give up their own personal desires to a larger cause—to the dreams of the entire world.