Air Combat Hollywood Style
Since the beginning of Hollywood motions pictures, mankind's wars have been a popular subject for movies. I wouldn't doubt that many hundreds have been made during the 20th Century. Because of my interest in aviation, air combat films are among my favorites. In that genre, "Wings" (1927 - 139 min.) was one of, if not THE, first. It was a silent film about two all-American boys who enlist in the Army Air Corps during World War I. Gary Cooper was among the film's stars, and it earned the first ever Academy Award for "Best Picture".
The air combat movies I've included on this page are ones that I consider special because they are fairly accurate historical portrayals of air combat in the era featured in each film. More details on this topic are included in the comments below about each film.
World War I
The Blue Max
20th Century Fox (1966 - Color/155 min.) ***
Plot: An aggressive young pilot (George Peppard) rises quickly through the ranks of the German Air Corps, but soon falls out of favor with the brass because of his cocky personality, which includes an affair with his superior's beautiful wife (Ursula Andress).
Comments: Despite the "soap opera" sub-plot, this movie features spectacular scenes of aerial combat created with authentic replicas of World War I era aircraft. The brutal, but chivalrous realities of air combat at that time are nicely displayed and, in fact, play a role in George Peppard character's downfall. A special highlight is a too-short scene in which the red Fokker Triplane of Baron Manfred von Richtofen (the Red Baron) appears.
MGM (2006 - Color/139 min.) ****
Plot: A young man from Texas (James Franco) goes to France with other American men who have decided to join the Lafayette Escadrille to fight against the Germans during World War I. There they learn to fly the crude war planes of the day and face the brutal realities of the air war.
Comments: Although the specific events depicted in this film are fictional, the overall premise and many of the main characters are based on real-life members of the Lafayette Escadrille. The aerial sequences were created with a combination of real airplanes, scale models, and computer graphics. Despite this, the visuals are surprisingly good. One thing that irked me a bit was that all of the Germans (except one) flew red Fokker Triplanes patterned after that of Baron Manfred von Richtofen (the Red Baron). I could be wrong, but I don't believe that so many red Triplanes were ever seen in the sky at one time in real life.
World War II - European Theater
Battle of Britain
United Artists (1969 - Color/133 min.) ****
Plot: On thing that the four World War II films included here have in common is that they are based on historical events that had a major impact on the war's outcome. In this case, that event is the Battle of Britain, during which the completely outnumbered ranks of the Royal Air Force successfully defended Great Britain from wave after wave of German bombers. It was in reference to this turning point in the war in Europe that Winston Churchill made the remark that "Never have so few given so much for so many." [I think I quoted that correctly.]
Comments: This film again features spectacular aerial sequences, with authentic replicas (or vintage models) of British Hurricane and Spitfire fighters going up against German Heinkel and Stuka bombers and Messerschmidt fighters. The movie realistically highlights the heroic efforts of the RAF pilots, ground crews, and other support personnel in keeping Great Britain from falling into German control.
Warner Brothers (1990 - Color/107 min.) ***
Plot: This movie chronicles the 25th and final mission of the "Memphis Belle" and her 10-man crew, who were perhaps the most famous of the U.S. Army Air Corps B-17 bomber teams. On this final mission in May 1943, the "Memphis Belle" was part of a daring but extremely dangerous daylight bombing raid deep into Germany.
Comments: The aerial sequences are again spectacular, with well-staged attacks on the B-17 bomber squadrons by German fighters. But the first half of the movie, which takes place the night before the big raid, moves a bit too slowly for my taste. Also, although it was probably a realistic depiction of what can happen in an aircraft in the middle of combat, the drama wouldn't have been hurt if some of the gratuitous "blood and gore" aboard the "Memphis Belle" had been left out. After all, the sight of a B-17 exploding in mid-air is frightening enough without having to show the blood of its crew being smeared on the windows of the plane right behind it! [In my opinion, Hollywood today gets too caught up with showing blood and guts just because it can be made to look realistic, when in most cases it's simply not necessary for the plot. Sometimes leaving things to the viewer's imagination can be more dramatically effective. As a general rule, I refuse to watch movies with graphic violence. -- I'm off my soap box now.]
20th Century-Fox (Lucas Films) (2012 - Color/125 min.) ****
Plot: This movie, thematically, shows the opposite side of "Memphis Belle." Here, the heroes of the story are the fighter pilots who put their lives on the line to protect the B-17 bomber crews during their raids on Germany. The Tuskegee Airman of Squadron 332 were African-American pilots who racked up an impressive record in protecting the B-17 bombers, even when the top Army brass didn't believe they were capable of being good fighter pilots.
Comments: George Lucas, of "Star Wars" fame, must be commended for taking on this touchy side of our military forces about a time when racial discrimination was still very prevelant even in government and military circles. Many, at the time, felt that African-Americans were mentally and emotionally inferior and unfit to be figher pilots. Overall, I believe this movie was a great air combat film, regardless of the racial under-currents, with great special effects and a rousing patriotic ending. I also have to commend the producers for giving us a war film that told a compelling story without throwing a lot of blood and guts at the screen (unlike "Memphis Belle"). I truly believe that this film deserved to have done better at the box office.
World War II - Pacific Theater
Tora Tora Tora
20th Century Fox (1970 - Color/144 min.) *****
Plot: A detailed, historically accurate depiction of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, from both the Japanese and American points of view.
Comments: This film gives an interesting inside look at the blunders on both sides, which led to (1) the Japanese attack taking place before an intended declaration of war was issued and (2) the American forces in Hawaii being completely unprepared, although the probability of an attack was known to the higher ups in Washington. Except that some of the ship explosions are easily identified as being models, the Japanese attack is well-staged and photographed. Sharp eyed viewers with even a little bit of familiarity with American aircraft carriers will note that the Japanese planes actually were taking off from 1960s-era American carriers. It would have helpd if different camera angles had been used to better hide the carriers' real identities.
Universal (1976 - Color/132 min.) ****
Plot: Like "Tora Tora Tora," this film depicts one of the key historical events of the war in the Pacific. It shows in detail how American military intelligence was able to break the Japanese code and be ready to stop a massive attack on Midway and, eventually, Hawaii. The film also gives an accurate blow-by-blow account of the actual Battle of Midway, during which naval aviators from the carriers Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet sank four of the six Japanese carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, the Yorktown was also lost in the battle.
Comments: Despite an unnecessary sub-plot about the son of Charleston Heston's character falling in love with a Japanese-American girl and the heavy use of aerial combat footage from "Tora Tora Tora" and newsreel documentaries of the time, this film is an excellent docu-drama on the battle that was the turning point of the war in the Pacific. It's one of my all-time favorite air combat movies. However, I don't rate it 5-stars because of the stock aerial footage and the heavy "soap opera" sub-plot.
Touchstone Pictures (2001 - Color/183 min.) ****
Plot: Two childhood friends with a passion for flying join the Army Air Corps and begin a chain of events that will find them engaged in some of the most dangerous and daring aerial combat of World War II, including the Battle of Britain, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Doolittle raid on Tokyo. Against this backdrop, they also have a rivalry over a pretty military nurse stationed at Pearl Harbor.
Comments: Okay, so the love story isn't earth-shatteringly original, there are some historical inaccuracies in the depictions of the Pearl Harbor attack and the Doolittle raid, and maybe it's 3-hour length is a bit much. However, I completely disagree with the tons of film critics who lambasted this film. There was enough drama and historical accuracy to make the combat scenes extremely stirring, the love story wasn't really all that bad, and the combat special effects were fantastic. This one became a part of my film library as soon as it came out on DVD.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri
Paramount Pictures (1955 - Color/103 min.) ****
Plot: Based on a best selling novel by James Michner, this film follows the fictional adventures of a lawyer (William Holden) who is recalled to active service to fly Navy jet fighters during the Korean War, leaving his wife (Grace Kelly) behind. The film's climax involves a raid on the "Bridges at Toko-Ri" and the later attempt by a helicopter pilot (Mickey Rooney) to rescue Holden after he's shot down behind enemy lines.
Comments: Although this film is based on a purely fictional plot, it does give a good representation of naval aviation, using the Grumman Panther jets, during the Korean War. The bridges of the novel's and movie's title are based on real-life bridges between Kilchu and Sognjin, which Navy fighters had to repeatedly attack over a period of 30 days before they were finally destroyed. And even then, the North Koreans repaired the bridges almost as fast as they were taken out of action.
Universal (1957 - Color/113 min.) ***
Plot: When a female Russian fighter pilot (Janet Leigh) defects to the United States, an Air Force pilot (John Wayne) is assigned to debrief her. In the process they fall in love and eventually are sent on an undercover mission into Russia.
Comments: The plot, of course, is completely fictional. However, this movie provides a somewhat lighthearted look at the mistrust and suspicions between American and Russian military personnel during the height of the "Cold War." In addition to the movie having some great aerial sequences featuring F-86 Sabre jet fighters, Janet Leigh never looked as lovely as she does in this movie. Want proof? Look at this...
Flight of the Intruder
Paramount Pictures (1991 - Color/115 min.) ****
Plot: Based on a novel by Stephen Coonts, this film follows the exploits of Navy bomber pilots during the Vietnam War and their frustrations at having their targets restricted by politicians back in Washington. A highlight of the film, besides the dramatic concluding rescue of Danny Glover's and William Dafoe's characters from behind enemy lines, is an unauthorized bombing run on downtown Hanoi by the rebellious Dafoe and Brad Johnson.
Comments: A lot of the aerial sequences take place at night (when many missions were actually flown) and are hard to see, but the action is fast and furious. The characterization of the frustrations of American military pilots (Navy and Air Force) during the Vietnam War seems to be realistic, based on what I've read on the subject. Essentially the politicians drew a line on the map and ordered that aerial attacks could not be made above that line into North Vietnam. Of course, just above that line was where the enemy therefore decided to set up their major bases.
Middle East Conflicts
Paramount Pictures (1986 - Color/110 min.) ***
Plot: Hot-shot pilots at the Navy's "Top Gun" aerial combat school compete to be the best of the best. But when Tom Cruise's character lets things go a little to far, contributing to the death of his RIO (back-seated Radar Intercept Officer), he struggles to regain the trust of his squadron members.
Comments: The closest thing there is to an air combat movie about the Persian Gulf War era is "Top Gun," which was actually made some 4-5 years before Operation Desert Storm. Still, this film gives a somewhat glamorized look at the life of the modern naval aviator. The F-14 Tomcat is a lovely aircraft to behold, and Tomcats are featured prominently throughout. Tom Cruise's bravado and all the other cliches are just background distractions to the nice aerial sequences.
For More Information
These movies have all been released on video and should be available through your local video stores or the many online video stores. Many of them also air occasionally on such cable TV networks as American Movie Classics, Turner Classic Movies, and TNT Network, among others.
1996-2015 Arnold E.
van Beverhoudt, Jr.