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

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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.



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Mel Sharkskin