AidSpace Blog

The Ten Best American Aviation Genre Films of All Time: A Highly Personal and Idiosyncratic List

Posted on

test pilot

A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer still photograph of Clark Gable, the star of "Test Pilot," a film directed by Victor Fleming in 1939.

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.

Twelve O'clock High

A movie poster that advertises "Twelve O’Clock High," a 1949 film directed by Henry King for Twentieth Century Fox. Gregory Peck stars.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. the right stuff

    A Ladd Company still photograph of Sam Shepard as Charles E, “Chuck” Yeager, the legendary test pilot, in Philip Kaufman’s "The Right Stuff" (1983).

  10. 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.
  11. 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.

Share:Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on TumblrShare on StumbleUpon

Tags: , ,

13 thoughts on “The Ten Best American Aviation Genre Films of All Time: A Highly Personal and Idiosyncratic List

  1. Under the qualifications listed to be eligible, I’d definitely have to add “The Great Waldo Pepper” to the list. Superb acting, great flying sequences, and a great story – I think it’s one of the best.

  2. I’ll go with a number of them but like some of the more recent films as well. My number one is also listed by others luckily and is a terrific blend of story, character development, and aviation.




    1. Dark Blue World
    2. The Blue Max
    3. The Bridges at Toko-Ri
    4. Always
    5. Twelve O’Clock High
    6. The Great Waldo Pepper
    7. The Dam Busters
    8. One Six Right
    9. Strategic Air Command
    10. Wings

  3. I think “The Spirit of St. Louis” belongs on the list. It’s one one of the best recreations of an historic event ever produced. It recounts the story of the most famous flight in aviation history.

    We see Lindbergh develop his credentials as a military pilot, a mail pilot, a barnstormer and an instructor. He pitches the idea to a meeting of bankers and newspaper people, with an explanation of why he wants a single-engine plane. He tries to buy a plane in New York, and when he can’t, heads for San Diego. We see the Spirit designed and then assembled and tested. We see a little of the flight to New York.

    Finally, the flight itself is recounted over about an hour of running time. The takeoff scene produces real suspense. Lindbergh passes over familiar landmarks and then finally, down a scenic harbor in St. Johns, Newfoundland and out over the Atlantic. There he battles fatigue and then icing, navigates by the stars for a bit, and almost falls asleep after dawn. The moment when he sees and recognizing the Irish coast, well ahead of schedule, is the climax of the picture.

    James Stewart was little too old to play the 25-year old Lindy, but he did a good job, and brought a pilot’s sensibility to the picture. The whole tone is a major departure for Billy Wilder, but proved he could handle a historic epic, even where the crowds of extras are confined to audiences watching an air show and almost invisible in the Paris night.

    Without a romance or other subplot, “The Spirit of St. Louis” is one of the very few films dedicated entirely to flying. And the dedication of the aviators in the dawn of aviation.

  4. This is an interesting article and a nice list. However, when it comes to aviation films – for me anyway, what type of person the pilots are or who they’re in love with is not that important. Yes, patriotism is important to me but the real stars of the film – and why I would watch a certain aviation film over and over – are the airplanes. From Mr. Pisano’s list I do like Bridges Over Toko-Ri, Test Pilot and The Right Stuff. My own personal list would include Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Strategic Air Command, Toward the Unknown, Bombers B-52, Top Gun, Spirit of St Louis, Dive Bomber, Keep Em Flying – Abbott and Costello comedy that has lots of neat footage of pre-war USAAF aircraft, The Aviator – I realize most of the footage is computer generated, but it’s still fun, and some people may laugh at this – The Rocketeer – a Disney film but I love the aircraft and theme of this fun movie. Finally, my 11th pick – Midway. I know this movie stole a lot of footage from Tora and other films and critics lambasted it, but it does have a lot of neat aircraft footage and I was 5 years old when my parents took me to see it. I was in my formative years and this was my first airplane movie (it was very loud) and I’ve been in love with PBY Catalinas ever since.

  5. While I agree with all of the above movies, I think Allied Artist’s 1968 film, Battle of Britain, should be included as one of the top 10. I think I would delete Only Angels Have Wings as more of a character play rather than aviation based. The airplane could have just as easily been replaced by a horse or race car. Battle of Britain had all the elements of character, flying action, and stayed reasonably true to historical events all within the confines of the movie.

  6. I’ll put Twelve O’Clock High at the top I’m WWII era age!!
    Bridges of Toki Ri second!! (I’m ex Navy)
    Most of the others after–all good!!

  7. I would include Hell’s Angels by Howard Hughes! The flight sequences (including the dirigible) are amazing, and I was fortunate to see this on the big screen. Also, the Red Tent starring Sean Connery and Peter Finch.

  8. I will have to watch more films on the list. For recent developments and Mira Nair’s beautiful visual style I recommend Amelia. To depict the isolation, claustrophobia, and stress of a high alert SAC mission I appreciate both the original “Fail Safe” and the made for TV “By Dawn’s Early Light.” For its prediction of XO9981 I like the HBO “Tuskeegee Airmen.” And if nothing else the Dolittle Raid portrayal makes “Pearl Harbor” worth viewing.

  9. The Spirit of St. Louis is my favorite all time aviation film. Although I haven’t seen it on tv for a while, any time I surf the tv and it is on, the tv remote is not operatable until the end of the film. Someday I would like to get a Lindbergh autograph.

  10. Although already mentioned, I would add “The Spirit of St. Louis” with James Stewart. Charles Lindbergh was the ultimate aviation hero in his time and, arguably, of any time. I was just a young tyke when I first saw this film, and the images of Lindbergh’s flight have stuck with me over the years.

  11. Above and Beyond. 1952. The story of Paul Tibbets (Robert Taylor) FYI: Jim Backus plays General Curtis LeMay. Jim is also the pilot in a classic scene from “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World with Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

three + 4 =