In a very happy coincidence, the invention of the airplane and the popularity of the motion picture came about at roughly the same time. The December 17, 1903 flight of the Wright Brothers is accompanied in film history by two famous productions, A Trip to the Moon in 1902 and The Great Train Robbery in 1903. If you are willing to stretch your definitions a bit, A Trip to the Moon might even be construed as an aviation film, but it definitely would not make most people’s ten best—or ten worst–lists.
Picking such a list is entirely subjective of course, being not only a matter of taste, but a matter of background, your age when you first saw the film, your willingness to suspend belief and your willingness not to be too picky over technical details. Further I’ve had the excellent helps of some experts in the field, including the noted author Barrett Tillman (BT), the excellent editor, publisher and distinguished film critic David Hogan (DH), the inimitable Jeopardy player, writer and industry champion, Jeff Rhodes (JR) and noted film expert Lawrence Suid (LS). All the choices stated are my own, however, but I’ll note their insightful comments.
Most of us might confess to being too picky. We get upset when markings are not correct for the period on warplanes, and become downright angry when those blasted three Douglas SBD’s are portrayed once again as Japanese dive bombers.
The strange thing is that we are not so picky on films about other subjects. Most of us can watch a film about medical procedures, court-room protocol or almost any other subjects and never see the many incorrect details which are obvious to the doctors or lawyers watching.
So for purposes of this article, I propose some ground rules for myself in evaluating both the selection and the rationale for selection of the Ten Best and the Ten Worst aviation films ever made. They are:
(1) Consideration of when the film was made.
(2) Not being too stuffy about minor technical errors.
(3) Not letting a saccharine story line get you down, even if June Allyson cries more than she usually does.
(4) Attempting to evaluate the film as a story rather than as merely a medium to show aircraft.
(5) Going with my gut feeling—probably the most important of the five.
(6) Making sure it deals with World War I. Well, just kidding. Maybe.
You’ll note there is no mention of the current blessing or blight, depending upon your point of view, of using computer generated imagery (CGI). We have to admit that it has come a long way, even if the artists doing the task have not yet quite come to terms with such things as turn rates, acceleration, speeds, and so on. There is no question that the 9-G turns at street level in the Pearl Harbor were hard to take. And while we may not be happy with the torturous story line of Flyboys (and could they have picked a worse, more insulting title?) you must admit that seeing Gothas in flight is remarkable even as CGI. And so were the images of the Zeppelin, especially the sequential explosion of its gas bags. So for the purposes of this article, let us forgive them their CGI errors, and bless them for what they offer in images that are otherwise totally unavailable.
There are a number of ways to approach the ranking. One might be by categories, i.e. military aviation films, commercial aviation, general aviation, etc. Another might be by era, or general type, i.e. silent, talking, black and white, color, etc. I’ve chosen to lump all the categories together and list them as follows:
1. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)
This good humored romp has it all, with wonderful replicas of both successful and unsuccessful early flying machines, beautiful scenery and a great cast that included Terry Thomas, Sarah Miles and Irina Demick as Brigitte, Ingrid, Marlene, Francoise, Yvette and Betty. Each of Irina’s characters was gorgeous, dutifully surprised and wonderfully willing. Even though the replica aircraft had more reliable power-plants and were better built than the originals, they were still challenging to fly, and conveyed very well just how magnificent flying truly was in the first decade of flight.
2. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Written in part by Beirne Lay, Jr., this epic reflects both his love of the U.S. Army Air Forces, and his first hand knowledge of the real events upon which the film was based. Gregory Peck, always a reliable performer, is at his best in this film, which takes advantage of still available B-17s and extensive combat footage to make the flight scenes very realistic. Twelve O’Clock High is of course about leadership and command more than it is about airplanes, and as such it could serve as both a military and a corporate training vehicle today. Mercifully, they did not feel the need to interject the usual mandatory love interest, and the film benefits greatly from this. (DH rightly says that “the
only one that comes close [and it comes pretty close indeed] is Command Decision [Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon, Charles Bickford, Van Johnson, Brian Donlevy, John Hodiak, Cameron Mitchell–wow!])
3. Wings (1927)
Wings was awarded the first Oscar ever given for “best picture” in 1929, a salute to its director William Wellman, a former member of the Lafayette Flying Corps. Wellman had flown in France with the same Tommy Hitchcock who one war later saw a potential for the Merlin engine in the Mustang. Wellman also served briefly after the war with the Army Air Corps. He went to work in Hollywood as a messenger, and quickly worked his way up to director. His reputation and his contacts were enough to persuade the Air Corps to furnish a virtual armada of more than 220 aircraft for the picture. These included Thomas Morse MB3A Scouts, Curtiss P-1 Hawks, Martin MB-2s and de Havilland DH-4s. A few World War I aircraft including a Spad VII, a Fokker D VII and an S.E. 5a also appeared. In contrast to Twelve O’Clock High there was a typical goofy love story of the time, a triangle between Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen and the inimitable Clara Bow.
Interestingly enough, Wellman, writer F. J. Saunders, Arlen and Rogers were all pilots. I’m told that Clara Bow had other interests. (DH comments that “The love triangle is well played: it’s tongue in cheek and little bit understated, and you just can’t beat Clara Bow. In real life, she was a very frightened, unhappy woman, but remains a luminous screen presence, and a good actress, too.”) (BT notes that in one scene Buddy Rogers is clearly seen flying a Thomas Morse. Wow! It was very unusual for a star to be risked in such a manner.)
4. Hell’s Angels (1930)
Good acting isn’t everything, not if you can marshal the number of genuine World War I aircraft Howard Hughes did to make his extravaganza. He also went to great lengths to make contemporary aircraft look enough like the real thing when flown in formation or lined up for take off. He even made a Jenny over to resemble an Avro 504! Only a relatively small percentage of the film deals with aviation but that little bit is remarkable. The studio work done with the Zeppelin is amazing, better than many special effects today. The monumental dog-fight scenes were used in dozens of other films and are still stolen today for use in documentaries. So despite its many faults (terrible acting, bad story line, not enough flying scenes), Hell’s Angels is an inevitable choice for the top ten. As a side issue, the best part of the recent film The Aviator was that devoted to Hughes’ making Hell’s Angels. (DH says that the dog fight and Zeppelin scenes were great “Plus you get the immortal Harlow (in two-strip Technicolor, no less). She hadn’t yet learned how to act (she mostly strikes poses), but her flesh impact is overpowering. “)
5. Strategic Air Command (1955)
The aerial photography of the Convair B-36 and Boeing B-47 in Strategic Air Command is perhaps the most beautiful ever done. It expertly conveys the majesty of flight as summoned by those two remarkable aircraft. James Stewart is especially good in the scenes where he is purportedly flying the aircraft. His realistic manner, with no drastic movements of the control yoke, no dead-ahead stare, no wandering gaze, tells you he is an experienced pilot. He sits and scans the instruments, making small incremental corrections that show he knows exactly what he is doing. The story and screen play by Beirne Lay is adequate except that it provides an opportunity for the always teary-eyed June Allyson to give her usual irritating impression of a wife who doesn’t get it about her husband’s love of flying. Ranking Strategic Air Command among the top ten rests primarily on its aerial photography and only secondarily on its story of the dedication of the people of the Strategic Air Command.
6. The Blue Max (1966)
What, another World War I movie? Well yes, I grew up on these, and can tell you that nothing was more welcome than arrival of The Blue Max, the first World War I aviation film made in color (to my knowledge.) We owe a lot to Jack Hunter, the author of the novel on which the film was based. Sadly, Jack passed away this year. The replicas built for the film are adequate—let’s face it, seeing any Pfalz in flight is worthwhile. The cinematography is superb. George Peppard plays his usual stone-faced self, but there is Ursula Andress to compensate. The story line had an interesting twist—the aristocrats versus the plebes in a German fighter squadron. As we know, many German fighter pilots were not commissioned, so it must have been Peppard’s personality that brought down Willi von Klugerman’s (Jeremy Kemp) disdain. (DH is, as usual, kinder than I, thinking that “He (Peppard) was always good at projecting haughtiness [see him as the all-but-in-name Howard Hughes, building his aviation empire, in The Carpetbaggers])”
7. Battle of Britain (1968)
The massive effort to gather the requisite number of Hurricanes, Messerschmitts, Spitfires and Heinkels was well worth while, and the special effects were not bad for the time. All of the aficionados knew that the Messerschmitts and Heinkels were ex-Spanish Air Force, powered by Merlin engines, but it didn’t bother anyone. The cast of characters was spectacular, and they had the good taste and good sense to cast Lawrence Olivier as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. The plot line was derived from an excellent book of the time The Narrow Margin. Susannah York was thrown in as a good looking, worthwhile addition. The ground scenes were filmed at Duxford contributing to the general realism of the effort. They actually burned down a WW II hangar for the film—that’s getting with the program. (BT adds that “When I was at Duxford in 1991 there was a plaque on the site of the former hangar, saying that it had regrettably been blown up during the filming of a motion picture! One reviewer noted, accurately, that Susie York filled that shirt tail extremely fetchingly.”)
8. The Dam Busters (1954) and 633 Squadron (1964)
These two films are lumped together in eighth place because they represent a time when good, clean patriotic airplane films were made in Great Britain, using real airplanes and fairly good special effects. The number of Lancasters and Mosquitos available to the producers was limited, but in the case of Dam Busters, some good war time film was edited in. I’m sure that those who knew Barnes Wallis in real life laughed a little at Michael Redgraves’ avuncular portrayal of him, but Richard Todd was perfect for the Guy Gibson role. In 633 Squadron, Cliff Roberston did his usual fine job, no doubt enjoying the chance to be around the Mosquito. (BT notes that “At least one or two serial numbers are correct on the Lancs. When did Hollywood ever do that? [Answer: Never-ever.]… Major flail about Guy Gibson’s Dog. [This is too arcane to explain here, but most will understand the allusion.]) (DH adds a comment I wish I’d been smart enough to make, i.e. “The Dam Busters is solid on just about every level, but what most impresses me about it is its determination to show and explain rather complex physics–and make it thrilling.) ( In re 633 Squadron, BT says “They BURNED A MOSSIE! Apparently an airworthy one at that.)
9. The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)
“Where do they get these men” was, I believe, the question asked by Frederic March at the end of the film, and in a way this really defined the film’s message. (DH agrees, commenting: The conclusion of The Bridges at Toko-Ri shocked audiences in 1954, and not simply because a big movie star ends up dead. What’s devastating is the sacrifice made by non-career fliers who rise to the occasion and do great things when called.”) Operating jets off World War II carriers was tricky business at best, and doing it under the conditions prevailing in Korea made it even more difficult. While the movie didn’t portray the accident rate at anything like it was at the time, it conveyed the danger that was ever present, and the courage it took to make the really tough missions. William Holden was doing his angry man routine, but Mickey Rooney more than made up for it with his portrayal of the helicopter pilot.
10. The High and the Mighty (1954)
Another airplane film directed by William Wellman, with the great Ernest Gann doing not only the book on which it was based, but the screen play as well. The result is an airplane disaster film that is represents the best of the genre. It has solid (if dated) acting by a good cast, and a believable ending that even Sully Sullivan would approve of. (BT comments “I used to date a 737 driver. She said all the FOs loved the film because the copilot slugs the pilot and gets away with it.”) (DH says that after many years “The High and the Mighty finally made it to DVD in the last year or so, to great excitement in the movie-buff community.)
And in a worthy coda, BT states that “Best aero flick not mentioned here: Task Force (1949) with Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, a Dauntless, a Wildcat, and some surprisingly good detail.” Barrett is as usual correct, and it also really bothers me to have left out such excellent candidates as “Dive Bomber,” “I Wanted Wings,” “Dawn Patrol” and so many others.
Now let us turn, with relish indeed, to the Ten Worst Aviation Films.
First of all, we can all probably agree that no picture with any airplane in it can be really bad. But on a relative basis, these sort of bump the bottom of the barrel.
1. Top Gun (1986)
While it will offend many, my first choice for worst aviation film ever is Top Gun, starring the man who needed the biggest pillow available to reach the controls, Tom Cruise. I know that many are enamored of this film, and some fighter pilots even suggest that it is a true representation of the cocky fighter pilot spirit, but to me is was an embarrassing waste of time and money. The airplanes are gorgeous, but they are slavered over with the hot spittle of guys who think they are really cute in flying gear, especially when they have neato names. I cannot imagine that anyone of their ilk would be tolerated in any military unit. (I’m now donning protective gear to protect myself from the flying insults.) The irony of it is that Hot Shots the spoof of Top Gun is a far better film. I rest my case on the fact that an avowed fan of Top Gun, a naval aviator who should know better, is also a fan of the Iron Eagle series.
2. Firefox (1982)
Please don’t tell Clint Eastwood that I said this, but it is easily the worst picture he ever made, and it also deals incidentally with aircraft. The plot is familiar, the retired expert recalled to do the one in a million job that only he can do, and the imaginary airplane is not bad. But otherwise it is dull, predictable and without any redeeming actual aerial action.
3. Jet Pilot (1957)
Howard Hughes and John Wayne were undoubtedly both ashamed of this mishmash of ideas. Made over eight years with different airplanes, the end result was an agonizing, predictable bore. There are some pluses including shots of a variety of aircraft such as the Northrop F-89, Lockheed F-84 and others. Reportedly Chuck Yeager did some of the aerobatic flying, which is a plus. But beautiful Janet Leigh was somehow not convincing as a cold but nonetheless seductive Communist pilot/spy.
4. Stealth (2005)
This film gained a great deal of buzz when photos of a “mystery Navy stealth jet fighter” were released on the internet. The mock-up was really quit good and took many people in. The picture itself, however, is amazingly empty of anything but cliché’s.
5. Midway (1976)
Midway is distinguished by having more changes of the airplane in one sortie than any other picture. It is condemned by the completely phony love story that was stapled to it. Coming after 1970’s Tora Tora Tora, it was a real disappointment. Hal Halbrook played the role of code-breaker Commander Joseph Rochefort with such a broad Mark Twain accent that you expected the carriers to be stern wheelers.
6. Memphis Belle (1990)
Probably the worst thing about this movie is the fact the wartime documentary was so good. While it hued generally to the original Memphis Belle the looks and demeanor of the actors were completely foreign to the time. Oddly enough it has been well reviewed, but any comparison of the original and this film sends this one to the bottom of the barrel.
7. Snakes on a Plane (2006)
This one hardly needs explanation, utterly ghastly in all respects. One can only imagine the amount of cocaine consumed in its creation.
8. Lafayette Escadrille (1958)
William Wellman betrayed his heritage with this turkey of a film which was totally unworthy of him. And pairing Tab Hunter with a pretend fighter plane is miscasting of the first water. Even if it’s about World War I aviation, it is still terrible.
9. Iron Eagle (1986) and its incredible three sequels
There are some nice airplanes in these films, quite a variety in fact, but the plot lines are so insulting that they make you dislike the people involved with the airplanes. A terrible waste of film, fuel, and if there had been any, talent.
10. Pearl Harbor (2001)
Despite the fact that there are airplanes in this film, it is probably the worst aviation film ever made, with a startling wrong portrayal of the great Jimmy Doolittle by the loathsome Alec Baldwin being the most unforgivable of many errors. They spent so much money and had such a great opportunity to do something well. Instead they delivered this mish-mash of bad performances, bad ideas and bad computer graphics that condemn the film to the worst ten of any list.
Jeff Rhodes comments that the “All-Time Worst Aviation movie and possibly the worst movie ever made award has to go to Interceptor (1982) – ridiculous plot, even more ridiculous ending. You had a little bit of everything – terrorists sliding down the inside of a refueling boom; fully politically correct crew on a C-5; a C-5 opening the front visor in flight; folding wing F-117s that launch air-to-air missiles and dogfighting. Watching this movie was like watching a trainwreck – you couldn’t keep from NOT watching for fear of missing what was coming next. I have had the good fortune not to see the film so I couldn’t include it on the list, despite its obvious lack of merit.
So there you have it—one man’s opinion, for what its worth, on the ten best and ten worst aviation films ever. I’m sure there are many different opinions out there, so send me your lists and we’ll see.