The 10 Best Warplane Films, According to Real Aviation Buffs (No Top Gun, Thank You)

With the possible exceptions of horses and ships, no other non-speaking entity has starred in so many motion pictures as the airplane. And we love airplanes. We love them so much we've probably seen every last airplane movie worth watching, and even more that weren't.

Of course, true aviation geeks watch these pictures with the hyperaware eye of a buff. Yelling "Gotcha!" every time a "Soviet MiG" is in fact a common old American F-84F Thunderjet with sinister red stars slapped on the wings (As in the Howard Hughes/John Wayne Cold War laugher Jet Pilot).

We were ruminating on our favorite films about airplanes and the lives (and, naturally, loves) of those who fly them. Hollywood rarely ever gets it right enough for the buffs, but sometimes they get pretty close. Here are ten.

Our criteria leaned toward the exciting use of airplanes. As for cinema art, well, some of these films are bloody awful. So note that Dr. Strangelove is not on the list. Great as it is, it stars people, not the airplanes. Top Gun also gets passed over. Every time we want to get a good glimpse of F-14 Tomcats, Tom Cruise's head gets in the way. When we want to hear the roar of the engines, he opens his mouth. Top Gun will never get on our list, thank you.

10. Flyboys (2006)
Director Tony Bill's valentine to WW I flying pictures, and to Wings in particular. Just the duel between the Nieuports and the Zeppelin is worth the ticket price. Flyboys revels in great period detail, and is a corny-in-a-good-way film about courage and chivalry. The movie follows several young men who go off to join the Lafayette Escadrille before the US entry into WW I. Such is the detail that the filmmakers had several replica WW I aircraft built, including a Fokker Dr. I Triplane.

The film even has an African lion whose character is named Whiskey, as did the real American flyers (along with another cub named "Soda"). And yes, at the beginning of WW I there really was a vague but courtly understanding among airmen, who were utilized primarily as observers, not fighters. Then, as Chuck Yeager put it, "Somebody put a gun on an airplane and ruined it for everybody."

The critics who were so cruel upon Flyboys' release clearly didn't know a Nieuport XVII from a Sopwith Camel.

9. Flight of the Intruder (1991)
John Milius's typically two-fisted (read: crypto-fascist) film is about two Naval aviators (Willem Dafoe and Brad Johnson) who decide to take the Vietnam War into their own hands and bomb downtown Hanoi with their A-6 Intruder. The Navy cooperated so closely that the production was allowed to actually rent the carrier USS Independence and her aircraft at a bargain $1 million a day. The result is a little Milius agitprop and a lot of great flying scenes with a host of different aircraft. It was an obvious choice as one of the first films to have a game tie-in with the production.
8. The Hunters (1958)
A magnificent Korean War picture directed by Dick Powell (catch his intro to the trailer). The film is based on a 1957 best-selling novel by James Salter, pen name of James Horowitz, who happened to be writing a barely fictionalized book about his deadly ambitious old squadron mates in Korea. And 60 years later, those guys are still bitching about it on the Military Channel.

It stars the great Robert Mitchum as a war-weary Sabre jet driver. And in a bizarre turn, the young Robert Wagner is Pell, an overeager proto-beatnik fighter pilot. Best of all, there is a whole sky full of beautiful F-86 Sabre jets.

Post-McCarthyite conservatives were put off by the antiwar message of The Hunters, though in the film it's extremely watered down from Salter's book (he later legally changed his name from Horowitz to Salter). Oh, and it comes with a rousing Frankie Laine-soundalike theme song, too.

7. Toward the Unknown (1956) An obscure favorite of aviation buffs, TTU was filmed at Edwards Air Force base at the height of The Right Stuff years. It stars the early supersonic fighters and bombers plus the then-futuristic X-planes. Chuck Yeager has a cameo, along with a host of other famous faces from the period that only aviation buffs will recognize.

This film, like many from William Holden's own production company, was tied up with his estate and disappeared for many years. Holden, who played guys weary of life better than anybody else, cast himself as a test pilot with Lloyd Nolan as his commander. The script draws from a number of legendary postwar test-pilot stories, and the plot, something about an advanced new bomber, is pretty much beside the point.

It's all about the flying, and the aerial cinematography is breathtaking. It may not be easy to find this on DVD, we learned, but it's out there. We've heard some complaints about the quality of the release, but TCM airs it occasionally with a good print and soundtrack.

6. Dive Bomber (1941) This classic features Errol Flynn and a studly Fred MacMurray as Navy researchers working on the problem of high-altitude flight immediately before World War II. Aviation fans adore this film because it was shot in color at a time when the U.S. Navy had the most colorful aircraft in the sky. The USS Enterprise has a starring role. So does virtually every U.S. Navy plane from just before WW II. These machines look fat, slow and dumpy to us now.

The plot is a little silly to us today, and considering that director Michael Curtiz made Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood around the same time, we can't figure out why the thing seems so dramatically wooden. Still, it really didn't need a great script because in its day it was a high-tech film about a high-tech subject. That's probably why Curtiz took a quasi-documentary approach to it. So of course it looks quaint and silly. Nevertheless, Dive Bomber is the favorite of many in the Airplane Cult. Us, we prefer jets.

5. The Right Stuff (1983) Thank god this was a good payday for Tom Wolfe, because director and screenwriter Philip Kauffman made a mockery of his book. The only reason The Right Stuff appears here is the flying footage, for as much as we disdain the dialogue, we have to grudgingly concede that most of this film is dazzling to the eye. Add a lump-in-the-throat music score by Bill Conti (who won the Oscar for it) and...well, if only it weren't for that dog's breakfast of a script. And a fantastic cast of Everybody Big in the Eighties doesn't help much.

The true story was exciting enough. Kauffman didn't have to add his transparently dumb metaphysical twists to it. No professional flyers on earth ever talked this way and even casual aviation and space flight buffs tear the film to shreds for its historical inaccuracies. We don't usually ask Hollywood for historical documents, but when you make the claim, as this film does, you'd better stick to at least a few facts. For example, few people ever really believed that Gus Grissom actually blew that hatch and lost his capsule himself. Otherwise, he wouldn't have stayed around to die on Apollo I.

After all that bile, though, we still have to say The Right Stuff is worth watching over and over. Just not with the volume up too far.

4. Strategic Air Command (1955) Jimmy Stewart's jingoistic love letter to SAC. Stewart, a veteran combat pilot and Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve, produced and starred in this one himself. Stewart is a professional baseball player (for the St. Louis Cardinals) who is called back into the Air Force after WW II, this time to hold off the Rooskies with his nuclear-armed B-36.

The latter was a veritable mountain of an airplane that probably plays better on the screen than it ever would have in a real shooting war. Later, however, Stewart is given his own B-47 to horse around the sky, and the film enters the Jet Age.

It helps knowing that Stewart was qualified to fly these aircraft and was allegedly quite proficient in them. He even flew a combat mission in Vietnam (in a B-52, some say as his little bit of payback for the death of his son over there).

The picture is also memorable for its fairly accurate peek at the lives of SAC families in the early nuclear age. The B-36s and elegant B-47s get their only major turn on the silver screen. The ur-faithful wife is played by, surprise, June Allyson.

3. Wings (1927)
The first and still one of the greatest. With a cast that includes Buddy Rogers and Clara Bow, not to mention a bunch of authentic WW I Fokker D.VIIs, SPADs and an Albatros or two (to name a few). It is a spectacular piece of filmmaking, with air-to-air footage that is breathtaking even by modern standards. This late-silent film won the first Oscar for Best Picture.

The rub here is that it is silent and runs a bit over two hours, a real test on 21st Century eyes and attention spans. We don't see a lot of people running out to find this one. Nevertheless, the film was believed lost for decades until a print was found in a vault in the '70s. Unlike the Huns in this movie, film lovers really dodged a bullet.

2. The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) Based on James Michener's slim (only 120 pages!) novel about Marine Corps fighter-bomber pilots flying off an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. William Holden is his usual taciturn self as the doomed Cmdr. Brubaker, and Mickey Rooney is, surprise!, a feisty Irish helicopter pilot.

The film was based on a couple of USMC squadrons Michener covered for Life magazine while assigned to aircraft carriers off the coast of North Korea. Among the aviators he followed was a very young and unknown Neil Armstrong.

Among the faithful, The Bridges at Toko-Ri is noted for its extremely realistic combat scenes using F9F Panther jets.

It won the Oscar for Special Effects, and we can clearly see why with all these jets zooming in to attack the enormous mountain-bridges of the title while being shot at by Korean flak gunners. And if Korean flak gunners don't get you interested, how about the radiant young Grace Kelly in living color?

The film's last line is remembered by all who see it, we suppose because it's short. And uttered by a crusty Frederick March as Admiral Tarrant. The line? "Where do we get such men?" He repeats it, of course. You have to say a line like that twice in these movies.

1. 12 O'Clock High (1947) The greatness of this film, sadly, has not quite been upheld by later generations. We aren't sure why. One of the finest documents of WW II bomber crews ever put to film, with Gregory Peck as the flying general sent in to shape up a "hard luck outfit."

The action takes place at a fictional airbase in England, and in the skies over Germany, where we're treated to flak bursts so thick (everybody together now) you could walk on them. It's great action, but you wouldn't have wanted to be there.

For the hardcore, there's fabled film aviator Paul Mantz at his most daring. The filmmakers, oddly, had a hard time finding a lot airworthy B-17s for the film, even though it was made barely three years after WW II and thousands were languishing in the desert Southwest. So Mantz and his pilots and camera operators made the best of the few they had.

Typically, the posters for the film lie. It's not about "12 men as their women never knew them." It's about a whole squadron of B-17s and their crews. Typically, ten guys went out on a mission, so that's a lot of people. And they do come and go in the film. But mostly, this story is about Peck's struggle to put the unit in shape so they can go dump bombs on Fritz. He's ably helped by his trusty executive officer, portrayed by Dean Jagger in perhaps his finest role.

This is a fine study of the effects of intense air combat on men, and the loneliness of command. Not to mention a B-17 landing on one wheel.

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Mel Sharkskin