This is a personal list, and as such, won’t please everyone. I accept that, but I wanted to look at the films that have best represented flying for me over the years.
I’ve also excluded helicopters in exchange for a festival of fixed wings. But as a person who loves aircraft and flying of all kinds, these are the ones that made me feel the need. The need for speed…
The Dam Busters (1955)
Gosh, what a place to start. For the most part, the film’s an historically accurate retelling of the ultimate daring-do of WWII. Richard Todd plays the unflappable Guy Gibson, who lead the amazing 617 Squadron on their secret mission against the dams of the Ruhr valley.
Using the Barnes Wallis (played by Michael Redgrave) utterly inspired bouncing bomb, they must penetrate Germany’s air defence network, attack impregnable targets, and try to come back alive.
The attack has since been the inspiration for a dozen or more other fictional movies, not least the attack on the Death Star at the end of A New Hope.
Let’s hope that the Peter Jackson-shepherded version that’s currently in the works is endowed with the roar of Merlin engines and the structural integrity of the British stiff upper lip.
633 Squadron (1964)
Loosely based on some real missions, 633 Squadron is intertwined with some love/hate/tragedy elements to create more of a narrative structure. Granted, the back projection work in the cockpits is horrible, but some of the real flying makes up for it in spades.
The de Havilland Mosquito is, by far, the coolest aircraft of WWII, and when I saw this as a child I’d have sold my very soul to have flown one.
As with most war movies of the era, it also has a very memorable theme, created by the legendary Ron Goodwin.
It has the line “Blue Leader to all sections. Enemy anti-aircraft intact. Keep your eyes open. We’re going in.” I wonder where that got repeated almost verbatim?
The Flight Of The Phoenix (1965)
I’m talking here about the original version, and not the poor remake. I accept that it only has flying at the start and the very end, but the story of a very unlikely group of individuals marooned in the desert, and their scheme to escape is wonderfully told.
The cast onboard is to die for, with probably the best selection of English-speaking actors you could possibly assemble. The pivotal scene is the one where it’s revealed that Heinrich Dorfmann (the fantastic Hardy Krüger) only designs model aircraft, when he’s got them to build a full size plane based on their assumptions of his expertise with real aircraft. It’s pure cinema magic.
A famous stunt pilot, Paul Mantz, was killed flying low trying to simulate a takeoff in the ‘Phoenix’, which is a rather sad epitaph to a marvellously crafted movie with some gripping performances.
Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines Or How I Flew From London To Paris In 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965)
Films like this one almost had their own genre in the sixties, and I’m a huge fan of others, like The Great Race. This one was entirely focused on the earliest days of flying, and has the most amazing cast of any movie from that period. It’s a who’s who of British comedy acting, led by Terry Thomas, with Eric Sykes, and even Benny Hill gets in here.
But between the sight gags and double takes there’s also some amazing flying, mostly with replica aircraft built specifically for the production. There are a couple of real vintage aircraft in here, but you need to be a propeller-head to know which ones they are.
The Blue Max (1966)
I’d rate this as probably George Peppard’s best film, as he manages to play the overly confident Lt. Bruno Stachel so effortlessly.
Unusually told from the German perspective, it gives an excellent insight to the lethality of WWI air combat, and the extraordinarily short lifespan of those who flew in that war.
I’d rate it better than Aces High, because the story is more compelling, and it also has James Mason and Ursula Andress providing ample support to the brooding Mr Peppard.
Poor Stachel’s ultimate demise, orchestrated by his own side, is a suitable reward for earning the Blue Max. For trivia fans, trained pilot Peppard is actually flying the plane for real in some of the external shots.
Battle Of Britain (1969)
As one who can tell the version of an Messerschmitt or Spitfire purely by shape, it’s slightly disappointing that Battle Of Britain wasn’t even more authentic than it was. But it’s still probably the best in this respect of an WWII flying movie.
What I really love about it is the notion that it tells the story from both sides, and the Germans aren’t presented as any more evil than the British. It’s a war, where many young men are dying and being horribly hurt, and in this case, it’s the pivotal event that allows me to type this article in English and not another language.
The flying footage included in Battle Of Britain is exceptional throughout, and gives a fantastic sense of the drama and exhilaration of close-quarter air combat in the summer of 1940. Contained within the hundred and thirty-two minute running time is a small snapshot of gallantry, and a worthy salute to those that fought and fell during Britain’s darkest hour.
Capricorn One (1978)
This is another space movie that happens to have amazing flying in it. Back when Elliott Gould had a big career and was married to Barbra Streisand, James Brolin wasn’t, and O.J. Simpson had his freedom, they appeared in this provocative sci-fi thriller, where the US government fakes a journey to Mars, so NASA can be heroes again on a lower budget.
But when the returning empty capsule burns up on re-entry, they have three live astronauts who need to be dead immediately.
The attempt by Brolin’s character to escape assassination and turn up at his own funeral includes the most bat-shit crazy flying sequences ever, where he’s hanging on the outside of a red Stearman crop duster that’s attempting to evade multiple helicopter gunships. There are parts of this footage that I find scary to watch, as the Stearman is pushed beyond any normal flight envelope by the incredible skills of stunt pilot, Frank Tallman.
Sadly, not long after filming this sequence he was killed on a routing ferry flight to Phoenix.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Although it’s mostly about the Gemini astronaut programme, it also has a strong narrative thread about Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, and how it was that, arguably, America’s most famous pilot was excluded from the space programme.
While the personality sparks that fly between the Gemini 7 are interesting, the interludes where we return to the brooding Yeager are much more visceral. The scene where he wrecks the Bell X-15 is terrifying, as is his entirely relaxed attitude to what was a very life threatening incident.
As if to underline that danger in filming that sequence, parachute stuntman, Joseph Leonard Svec, died when he lost consciousness due to smoke inside his helmet, and failed to open his chute.
If you’ve not caught this movie, it’s certainly worth investing the long hunderd and ninety-three minute running time to experience it.
Top Gun (1986)
This movie doesn’t age well, I’ve concluded. What Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis and Val Kilmer are doing in front of camera here is beyond me, because it isn’t acting.
As a keen flyer at the time, the plot holes in what goes on are so huge you could get an aircraft carrier through them sideways. Yet, it does have some wonderfully kinetic action photography of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat at the very edge of remaining airborne.
The thumping soundtrack and Tony Scott’s signature grain heavy photography all contribute to a flawed but enjoyable romp. The most amazing thing about Top Gun now is that it never got a sequel. So far…
Flight Of The Intruder (1991)
This is the movie that best explains the danger of flying over Vietnam during that conflict, in the somewhat unattractive but built for the fight Grumman A-6 Intruder.
The rather wooden performance of the lead, Brad Johnson, is more than made up for by excellent ones by Willem Dafoe (‘Tiger’ Cole) and Danny Glover (‘Dooke’ Camparelli), and some excellent aerial photography combined with model effects.
The climatic sequence, where the two heroes take their A-6 on an excursion to enemy capital Hanoi, is both terrifying and yet amazing at the same time. Given the number of SAM missiles around Hanoi at time, it’s clearly a suicidal trip, even for the very best pilots to attempt.
Director John Milius claims it was the worst film experiences he’s had, but the movie isn’t a negative one for the viewer.
Some of these movies are good, others are less wonderful, but they all have some remarkable flying sequences.
The Bridges At Toko-Ri Aces High The Spirit Of St. Louis The Great Waldo Pepper The Sound Barrier Midway Twelve O’Clock High 30 Seconds Over Tokyo The Final Countdown Tora! Tora! Tora! Murphy’s War
Not seen, but supposed to be great
Dark Blue World Pour Le Merite