You have to go pretty far back into movie history to reach a time before we were making movies about aeroplanes. The very earliest films saw us flying in a fantastical context (think of Georges Méliès and his Trip to the Moon), but it wasn’t long after the advent of the fixed-wing aircraft that movies began to imagine slightly more plausible airborne scenarios, with the flying aces of World War I serving as an early inspiration.
Many of the earliest movies involving aeroplanes were also war movies, but filmmakers realised relatively quickly that there was plenty of excitement to be found in the air even outside the realm of dueling biplanes, the 1920s and ‘30s being an era when human flight was only beginning to mature into a safe and convenient form of travel. Later, the air battles of the second World War provided decades of material for filmmakers. And, of course, there’s plenty of drama to be found on commercial airliners.
These are all films about the thrill of flying, inspired by the release of the long-delayed Top Gun sequel. Despite the mundanity of flying commercial, few of them suggest that air travel is in any way safe or peaceful. (There are few great movies to be made about soaring uneventfully through the clouds.) What these movies do provide are vicarious thrills for all of us who tend to clench our armrests a little too tightly during a slightly bumpy landing at Newark.
Academy Award voters have long had a penchant for historical epics, going all the way back to the first ceremony, held in 1929. In Wings, silent film superstar Clara Bow stars as Mary, the girl next door to a couple of World War I-era Army Air Pilots. They’re both fighting over another woman but, of course, Mary winds up being the real catch, especially when she puts her own life on the line to become an ambulance driver. As a romantic drama, it’s fairly standard (even for the time), but the many spectacular aerial sequences are the real draw, filmed at tremendous expense and with the help of planes and pilots loaned by the military. The genuinely dangerous stunt-flying, in an era when planes weren’t nearly as safe, makes the movie uniquely thrilling even today. Wings won not only the first Best Picture Oscar, but also the first prize for Visual Effects.
Hells Angels (1930)
Howard Hughes’ pre-Code folly cost nearly $US3 ($4) million (at a time when that was real money) and didn’t do nearly well enough at the box office to make it worth it. It’s spectacular failure was nevertheless a big break to up-and-comer Jean Harlow, and the film offers some of the most gruelling flying sequences the late-silent/early-sound era (the production took so long that it straddles that line, being reworked as a talkie midway through). Hughes spared no expense, sourcing dozens of World War I-era planes and designing or co-designing most of the flying sequences himself. The project consumed so much of his time that it served as the subject of the Oscar-winning biopic The Aviator, and the director’s own stunt-flying became part of his legend when he took it upon himself to fly on film, crashing his plane and nearly dying (three other stunt pilots weren’t so lucky).
Night Flight (1933)
Night Flight doesn’t have much in the way of exciting aerial sequences, instead doing an impressive job of generating suspense by focusing on the people on the ground — the loved ones of the film’s pilots, and those responsible for seeing that their jobs get done. Based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s (The Little Prince) book about his experiences as a pilot running South American mail routes, the movie virtually disappeared following its release, but was rediscovered in 2011. Despite its all-star cast (John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, etc.), its lack of aerial grandeur sank it at the box office, but the movie manages to capture something of the danger of those early days of aviation.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Many aviation films (even very good ones like Night Flight, with which this movie shares a ton of DNA) struggle to balance flying action with airfield drama, but Only Angels is every bit as engaging on the ground as it is in the air. A golden-age Hollywood classic of the first order, it stars Cary Grant in a surprisingly effective tough-guy role alongside Jean Arthur and then-newcomer Rita Hayworth. It’s a superbly atmospheric story of risky flying (once again in the Andes) and doomed romance.
A Guy Named Joe (1943)
A sweeping romantic fantasy, A Guy Named Joe casts Spencer Tracy as impetuous American pilot Pete Sandidge, flying missions out of England during World War II, until he dies during a mission to bomb a German aircraft carrier. A year later, he finds himself back on Earth and tasked with passing his knowledge and skill along to a young fighter pilot, Ted Randall, in the South Pacific (Van Johnson). All well and good, until Ted develops a relationship with Dorinda, Pete’s girlfriend who’d only just come to accept his death. Later remade by Steven Spielberg, with mixed results, as Always.
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Much of the aerial action in Twelve O’Clock High comes from its use of actual combat photography, as well as its highlighting of the B-17 Flying Fortresses that were still around in the days after World War II. Eschewing much of the (understandably) propagandistic tone of similar movies of the era in favour of something a bit more nuanced (and a bit darker), with tremendous performances lead by Gregory Peck, the film deals in broad strokes with the psychology of bomber pilots and the hits to their morale from their constant exposure to danger and death. The film smartly avoids shoehorning in a romantic subplot, which also means, unfortunately, that there are no women whatsoever in the primary cast.
Zero Hour (1957)
It’s hard to take Zero Hour! terribly seriously: first, because like all the best disaster movies, it’s wildly overdramatic; and more importantly, because the same story was filmed a couple of decades later as Aeroplane! (This one also turns on the question of which passengers had the fish.) All that being said, the story of a troubled Royal Canadian Air Force pilot forced to take the helm of a modern commercial airliner during an emergency is enjoyably tense, with impressively choreographed moments of near-disaster.
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)
A race aerial farce in the style of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Ken Annakin’s film one-ups that blockbuster in its commitment to verisimilitude. The story is set in 1910, and the director committed to accuracy in the assortment of period aeroplanes, including single winged craft as well as some recognisable styles of biplanes and triplanes. While the recreations often had more modern engines, they were still meant to outwardly match their originals. It’s bright and silly, but the filmmakers’ love of aviation history shines through.
The Battle of Britain (1969)
Guy Hamilton, a director best known for his James Bond films, brought some of that style to his depiction of the 1940 air campaign during which the British scored a victory over the German Luftwaffe that effectively ended Hitler’s hopes of directly invade Britain. The all-star cast is laden with big-name Brtitish actors of the day (including Michael Caine, Ian McShane, Laurence Olivier, and Christopher Plummer), but its emphasis on historical accuracy (at least as events were understood in 1969) sets it apart. The filmmakers sourced well over a hundred authentic vintage Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes, restoring the planes and making flyable the ones that could be made so. It all builds to a climactic air battle over London, one of the most grandiose ever put on film.
The Airport series represents very nearly the top-of-the-line in star-studded ‘70s disaster movies (taking a backseat only to The Poseidon Adventure). It’s wildly entertaining and, even better, also served as inspiration for the inspired parody of Aeroplane! Opening at a snowy Chicago-area airport, the film involves a blizzard, an aeroplane bomber, and plenty of brilliantly juicy drama both aboard a commercial airliner and back on the ground. The flawlessly of-its-time cast includes Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, and Helen Hayes, who won an Academy Award for her performance. The thing was even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, suggesting that the Academy hasn’t always been quite so averse to having fun.
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
There are likely few more entertaining movies about the birth of aircraft regulations, but The Great Waldo Pepper has its own fun depicting the barnstorming pilots of the anything-goes 1920s, who performed aerial derring-do in order to entertain. Robert Redford plays the title character, a World War I veteran who remains a little salty about having missed his chance to fly during the war. He first joins a sort-of aerial circus before moving to Hollywood as a movie stunt pilot. The climax sees him coming into conflict with Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin), a German consultant — filming a recreation of famous aerial duel, their on-the-ground head-butting turns into a real-life dogfight that caps a series of increasingly entertaining biplane and monoplane flying sequences.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Ostensibly, this movie is about the birth of the United States space program of the 1960s, portraying everything that lead up to the Earth orbits of the Mercury missions, but the protagonists are the Air Force test pilots who were pulled into that world. Beginning with the first supersonic flight by Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), the movie feels like a window into a (nearly exclusively male) world of high-risk, high-reward piloting under the most dangerous of circumstances, at a time when success equalled speed.
Top Gun (1986)
Well this one’s a given. Barely a plot, lots of action and homoerotic tension: Basically the most ‘80s action movie ever made.
Iron Eagle (1986)
Released in the same year, Iron Eagle outguns Top Gun for sheer ‘80s-style chutzpah, with some genuinely entertaining dogfights and rah-rah-USA! action. The movie was swamped at the box office by the sheer force of the Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer team-up, but the pairing of Louis Gossett Jr. and, improbably, Poirot’s David Suchet, works every bit as well. As a franchise, it also has a bit of a leg up on Top Gun in that there are four movies in the series (all starring Gossett), where Maverick’s saga has barely scratched out two.
Porco Rosso (1992)
The World War I-era has provided plenty of material for aerial action movies, but never with quite the style of this early Studio Ghibli film, directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki. Former Italian fisher ace Marco Pagot is retired from the military, instead using his skills to chase Adriatic air pirates. He’s also been cursed to live as an anthropomorphic pig. Porco Rosso is maybe not as widely beloved as some of Miyazaki’s other films, but only because not as many people have seen it; it’s every bit as good. (And if you want more of Miyazaki’s unparalleled animated aeroplane obsession, next watch The Wind Rises, a problematic biopic about the man who invented the Japanese Zero fighter planes used in WWII.)
Independence Day (1996)
It’s hardly the ne plus ultra of flying movies, particularly when it comes to realism, but Independence Day includes some some truly fun aerial action sequences, with the whole thing playing as a shameless holdover from the go-go-America air combat movies of the 1980s. F/A-18 pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) is the closest thing to a lead, but the movie’s most memorable flying moment involves a heroic act of self-destruction by Randy Quaid’s Russell Casse, from a time when he was known more for his eccentric characters than for his indecipherable YouTube conspiracy videos.
Air Force One (1997)
Fact and fiction (mostly the latter) blend in Air Force One, with Harrison Ford as the badass POTUS who finds himself and his family in danger when terrorists disguise themselves as journalists to sneak on board America’s plane. It’s a slightly silly, but still nearly flawless blend of airborne explosions and middle-aged man fisticuffs.
The Sky Crawlers (2008)
In a world at peace, mega-corporations hire fighter pilots to engage in genuinely dangerous combat operations that serve, on one level, as entertainment, but also as a way for the world’s population to blow off some steam and experience the visceral thrills and nationalistic fervor of war without any of the devastating consequences. There’s a lot going on here, including the stories of pilots genetically engineered to remain adolescents, but the beautifully animated aerial sequences (involving mysterious attackers who endanger what was initially intended as a reconnaissance flight) are a highlight.
The Red Baron (2008)
Wildly controversial upon its original German release, this film was criticised for both its glorification of Manfred von Richthofen, the World War I fighter ace, as well as for its historical inaccuracy — it goes to great lengths to conjure both a nonexistent romance for the pilot, as well as a bad-boy personal life that doesn’t line up with the factual record. Nevertheless, it contains several truly impressive aerial combat scenes, depicting the famous Fokker biplanes of the era in beautifully shot night sequences. If your primary association with the Red Baron is old Snoopy comics, check it out.
Red Tails (2012)
Though it was released to mixed reviews, probably fairly, there’s an undeniable passion behind the last project from Lucasfilm before the company merged with Disney. Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) and John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) co-wrote the fictionalized World War II-era story of The Tuskegee Airmen, comprised of the almost entirely Black members of the 332d Fighter and the 477th Bombardment Groups of the US Air Force, including pilots, airmen, and support crew. The upbeat tone garnered criticism, but the aerial combat scenes are both exciting and incredibly fun, and the film provides a window on a key era in military aviation.
Denzel Washington plays a troubled, drug-addicted commercial pilot whose luck finally runs out (or, more precisely, that of his passengers runs out) when he falls asleep while co-piloting a commercial flight to Atlanta. When he wakes up and manages to right the plane, saving most lives, he’s at first seen as a hero — but only until the results of a drug test come back. What follows is a cover-up and an inevitable reckoning, with a performance from Washington that earned him an Oscar nomination. Granted, the story of a pilot with substance abuse issues endangering a commercial flight doesn’t have an obvious appeal to flying enthusiasts, but the Robert Zemeckis-directed picture includes an extended crash sequence that’s as heart-stopping as they come.