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Dark Blue World: Special Edition

With Hollywood dominating the worldwide movie industry, it may at times seem that Americans have cornered the market on cinematic patriotism. Certainly Steven Spielberg revitalized the World War II film genre with Saving Private Ryan, and Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor managed to win big at the international box-office with its blend of melodrama and aerial pyrotechnics. But — particularly in regards to the Second World War — many countries have their own heroes to honor, and their own stories to tell. Enter Czech director Jan Sverák, whose 1996 Koyla won that year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It was an accolade that allowed the director to raise substantially more money for his next project, which took five years to make. Dark Blue World (2001), written by the director's actor/screenwriter father Zdenek Sverák, concerns the fate of several Czechoslovakian pilots who suddenly found themselves without a rank or air force after the Third Reich invaded their nation. The Czechoslovakian population suffered quietly under the Nazi occupation, but many pilots made the journey to Britain, where they flew for the RAF against German planes — only to return home after the war to find they were not welcome by the newly formed communist government, which wasted no time putting all rogue pilots in labor camps. Dark Blue World begins in such a labor camp, as former pilot Frantisek Sláma (Ondrej Vetch) suffers the daily brutality and deprivations of his communist captors — folks who promise the only way out of the camp is a one-way trip to the local cemetery. Often visiting with the facility's doctor, a German who despises the traitors he treats, Frantisek recalls his life during the war, and the arrival of the Nazis. At the time the Czechoslovakian Air Force is flying World War I-era biplanes, and Frantisek is training a new recruit, Karel Vojtisek (Krystof Hádek), a natural stick-and-rudder man. But as the mentor and his protegé flee to England, they soon discover that the Royal Air Force considers foreign aviators to be little more than trainees. The boyish, impulsive Karel is often driven to emotional outbursts over his training, in particular the need to learn English, and the Czechoslovakian squadron is forced to ride around on bicycles with little wings attached to them in order to learn formation skills. But eventually they take to the skies — and Karel is shot down over England on his second mission, where he finds refuge at the country home of young widow Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), whose husband is presumed lost at sea. Karel winds up falling in love with the older Susan, but when Frantisek meets the widow he also is enraptured, and they begin a secret love affair, both hoping the smitten Karel will never know the truth.

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The most expensive film to date produced in the Czech Republic (costing $7 million) and also the most successful, Dark Blue Skies has become the country's own Saving Private Ryan, a cinematic love-letter to the courageous aviators who joined the war effort against Germany when so many others were unable to fight. But perhaps sensing this inevitability, scenarist Zdenek Sverák made a point of being sure there would be a strong story for the picture — noting that he re-wrote the screenplay ten times "to cut out any hero worship." And while on the surface a traditional wartime melodrama with plenty of action sequences and a steamy love triangle, the film is tempered by its European sensibilities — the performances from both Czech and British actors underplay the more theatrical elements, and the victories the pilots earn are contrasted with many failures, professional and personal. Additionally, while a great deal of digital enhancement is used to create the exciting aerial sequences, Dark Blue World delivers genuine movie magic by making it hard to spot the seams. "What you can shoot for real, shoot for real," director Jan Sverák notes in this DVD's documentary feature. "No artificial effect will be as good. It's better to shoot things at their actual size." To this end Sverák used three genuine World War II-era aircraft for principal photography, including two Spitfires that cost $10,000 per flight-hour and a bomber that did double-duty as a camera-ship. Throw in several large-scale models, a lot of blue screens, and even a bit of altered footage from the wartime classic Battle of Britain, and Dark Blue World bristles with a cinematic realism that is becoming more and more scarce in a digitally obsessed Hollywood. (Note to big-budget directors: Scale models always look more convincing than cartoon creations.) An emotional film with both heart and intelligence, Dark Blue World will please fans of the World War II genre, offering plenty of matinee entertainment, but also underscoring a simple theme: What makes someone a hero? Sverák's grim, subtle ending emphasizes that heroism comes with a price, often going unrewarded and without recognition. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Dark Blue World: Special Edition features a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that blasts all channels during the aerial sequences. Features are generous and include a commentary with director Jan Sverák and producer Eric Abraham, the documentary "The Making of Dark Blue World" (33 min.), a look at the various composite visual effects (7 min.), an "Aerial Symphony" (3 min.) with the engaging score by Ondrej Soukup, and a photo montage of publicity stills and behind-the-scenes shots, accompanied by the big-band-era music from the movie. Keep-case.

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