I am sure that my selections for the ten best American aviation genre films will be hotly contested. First, let me clarify what I mean by “aviation genre.” The aviation genre is defined by the manner in which an aviation film pays attention to characterization, values, actions, and iconography. Broadly speaking, the genre is about professional pilots as masculine heroes, who band together in a tightly-knit community, and who do dangerous work. In large part they have little or no regard for life outside aviation, are somewhat misogynistic, and they are fatalistic about life. They wear pilot gear and their work is set in an environment surrounded by aircraft and the iconographic trappings of aircraft.
I contend that the most outstanding aviation genre films contain these elements, and that for my money, the most representative of them were made during the 1930s and 1940s, a time when aviation was a new and revolutionary technology. After that, the generic elements changed somewhat, in keeping with the times and shifting political and cultural conditions, but not enough to make the genre as exciting or relevant as it was during the Golden Age of aviation and throughout World War II. There are exceptions.
Some will no doubt be disappointed that I omitted foreign films—the excellent British film One of Our Aircraft is Missing (Michael Powell, 1942), or the equally fine Breaking the Sound Barrier (aka The Sound Barrier), directed by David Lean in 1952, for example. Or, that I excluded documentaries—William Wyler’s classic The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress from 1944 or Target For Tonight (Harry Watt, 1941), a British film about a Royal Air Force Bomber Command Vickers Wellington bomber and its crew.
Also, some may be miffed that I didn’t consider aviation disaster movies like William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) or Airport (George Seaton, 1970) or even the cheeky spoof on aviation disasters, Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker, 1980). Other films like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb is not really an aviation genre film or aviation film at all—it’s about nuclear holocaust. The excellent Flight of the Phoenix, directed by Robert Aldrich in 1965 (not the 2004 remake), and starring James Stewart, is a movie about an airplane and the survival of its crew and passengers under impossible and even improbable conditions. And, although Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (Ken Annakin, 1965) is one of my personal favorites, it doesn’t conform to the generic formula. Although it does conform, Top Gun (1986) did not make the cut because while it has some of the finest flying scenes ever filmed, it is cliché-ridden and full of immature fantasy.
Finally, there are no television productions on the list; I was concerned primarily with feature films made in Hollywood that typically espouse American values and portray American notions of masculinity and courage—the “Right Stuff,” as Tom Wolfe characterizes it.
So, I offer for your consideration, the following in chronological order:
- Wings (1927)—Wings is the first true aviation epic film, and the advent of the aviation film genre. It was directed by William Wellman, and based on a story by John Monk Saunders, who won an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story. The film stars Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arlen. It won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1929.
- The Dawn Patrol (1930)—Howard Hawks refined and redefined the aviation film genre with this examination of stoic men who face death in air combat during World War I. This version, which stars Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., is rarely if ever seen on television and is not available in VHS or DVD. The more well-known 1938 version, directed by Edmund Goulding, which stars Errol Flynn, used footage from the original and keeps the exact story line.
- Test Pilot (1938)—Directed by Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, both 1939), this film stars Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. Test Pilot largely follows Hawks’s Dawn Patrol formula. The difference is that as the war in Europe approaches, the individualistic and often reckless test pilot-hero (Gable) reluctantly makes accommodations to the demands of his Air Corps compatriots and his family.
- Only Angels Have Wings (1939)—Howard Hawks’s classic tale of unsung mail pilots who face both love and death under difficult circumstances in a remote region of the Andes Mountains. This film stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Richard Barthelmess, with a bit part by Rita Hayworth.
- Air Force (1943)—Howard Hawks again, although this time the team represents the idealized values of aviation combat heroes in a much different context than the individualistic WWI aviators portrayed in The Dawn Patrol. Air Force hews to the preferred narrative for WWII Hollywood films; i.e., an ethnically diverse, self-sacrificing group that is honorable and working together towards an Allied victory.
- Twelve O’Clock High (1949)—Henry King’s poignant portrait of the Organization Man at war, starring Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, and Gary Merrill. In many ways, this film is a continuation of themes Hawks developed in The Dawn Patrol; i.e., group effort versus individualism, and the psychological and emotional price a leader must pay for sending men to their deaths.
- The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)—This film, adapted from James Michener’s novel of the same name, and directed by Mark Robson, examines the nature of combat pilot-hero bravery and its demands during the Korean War, an era in which the genre formula begins to break down. It stars William Holden, Grace Kelly, and Frederic March.
- The War Lover (1962)—Based on a novel by John Hersey, directed by Philip Leacock, and starring Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner, this film, along with The Bridges at Toko-Ri, marks the beginning of the break with the traditional master narrative of the combat pilot hero in the post-WWII era.
- The Blue Max (1966)—Directed by John Guillermin and starring George Peppard, James Mason, and Ursula Andress, this film revisioned the WWI aviation combat genre for the postmodern era. The Blue Max exposes the politics and nationalism behind the competition among combat pilots to become aces. In the days before computer graphics effects, The Blue Max contains some of the finest flying sequences ever put on film.
- The Right Stuff (1983)— Based on Tom Wolfe’s book and directed by Philip Kaufman, this film stars Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, and Dennis Quaid. It is a brilliant and nostalgic tribute to test-pilot Chuck Yeager and the values of the pilot-hero in the post-heroic space age.
Fortunately most of these films are available in DVD, and in some cases, Blu-ray Disc format. Also, many of them have appeared on the Turner Classic Movies channel. All have synopses and some are reviewed in the TCM database.
Dom Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.