The Best and Worst War Movies About Aerial Combat

Aerial combat is one of the most thrilling scenes in war films, and also one of the most inherently difficult (and expensive) to film.  These are the Best and Worst war movies about aerial combat...

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Hells Angels (1930)

Hell's Angels.

The Worst!

If you've seen The Aviator with Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, you'll recognize that Hughes was hard at work on a film about aerial dogfighting.  You'll also perhaps recognize that Hughes was sort of mentally unstable during the filming and chose to edit it himself in seclusion.  Well, this film is the final result.  It's got big flying sequences, which were filmed with real life planes taking up real life cameras and then engaging in massive aerial formations with hundreds of other planes, all filmed without regard to expense by Howard Hughes.  But the story threads that hold these now dated aerial dogfighting scenes together are fractured and chaotic, almost as if from the mind of a person struggling with...oh right, Howard Hughes.  The only reason to see this movie is if you're a Hughes enthusiast interested to see how his failed indulgent aviation epic turned out.

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The Dawn Patrol (1938)

The Dawn Patrol.

The Best!

Errol Flynn plays the lead in this film about an insubordinate flight commander whose ordered to send in a squadron of untrained novice pilots against the German war machine in the first World War.  Also holds the interesting footnote of being one of the first ever re-makes (re-making the 1930 film of the same name starring Douglas Fairbanks; of the two this is the better film.)

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Twelve O'Clock High (1949)


The Best!

Gregory Peck is assigned the task of whipping a demoralized bombardier unit back into shape, after suffering post traumatic stress from losing so many airmen in the second World War.  One of the first films to deal with the idea of combat stress, and is considered by pilots to be fairly realistic, it has good aerial special effects for the era, and Gregory Peck in fine form.

Click here for the Best and Worst War Movies about PTSD.

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Firefox (1982)


The Worst!

As paranoid Cold War-era plots go, this one isn't actually that bad.  Clint Eastwood is a retired American pilot pulled back into service by the American government for - you guessed it - one last mission!

The mission?  Clint must sneak into the Soviet Union, steal a prototype jet (the Firefox, not the web browser), and fly it back to the United States. Along the way, he'll be stopped by KGB agents, and attacked by Russian MIG fighter jets.

This could have been an engaging thriller, if only the KGB bad guys weren't so comically inept and the MIGs easily destroyed with a single button from the jet (which, fires weapons by thought control!)

​Lazy screenwriting turned what could have been a serviceable action film into a silly Cold War cinematic relic.

Click here for the Best and Worst War Movies about the Cold War.

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Iron Eagle (1986)

Iron Eagle.

The Worst!

Attempting to cash in on the Top Gun aerial fighter pilot phase in the 1980s (yes, this was a brief phase in war cinema!), some sleazy producer pitched Iron Eagle

The plot:  Teenager's pilot father is shot down over a fictional Arab state and sentenced to hang in three days for trespassing.  With his high school friends and Louis Gossett Jr., teenager breaks into Air Force base, steals an F-16 (as you do!) and flies overseas to rescue his father, fighting many enemy MIG fighters along the way.

Unnervingly, this film was followed by not one, but three sequels, which just goes to show that the American public is not nearly as discerning as it should be.

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Top Gun (1986)

Top Gun. Paramount Pictures

The Best!

What?! The best?! Those who read most of my articles, will know that I often harp on Top Gun. My frequent readers will know that I dislike the film because it’s reminiscent of that dumb 1980s era action phase that infected the war movies genre for too long. In more than one article, I’ve complained that this film isn't much more than an empty recruitment campaign for the Navy.

Yes, all that is true. But context is everything. And when we’re not talking about overall film quality, but the very specific context of aerial combat films, that changes the calculus a bit. Suddenly, I have to give credit where it’s due and notice the film’s aerial dogfights are second to none. 

As a viewer, you “sort of” have an idea where all the different planes are in relation to one another. And moreover, the film makes long shots of what is essentially footage of someone just sitting in a chair (cockpit) yelling for half the movie, seem really exciting. Top Gun is not a good film. But if you’re going to have a film about aerial combat, you could do a lot worst.

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Firebirds (1990)

Fire Birds.

The Worst!

Firebirds is an odd, odd film.  The short description is simply:  Top Gun with helicopters.  But not nearly as good.  (Yes, "not nearly as good" as a film which, itself, isn't that good.)

Nicolas Cage is the hotshot pilot, Tommy Lee Jones is the gruff commander that needs to teach the rookie some manners, and Sean Young is the sultry love affair.  The action scenes are absurd and incomprehensible, the acting wooden, the script meandering.  Worst of all, it has a Reagan-era jingoism "Kill Soviets" rah rah cheering, that is woefully out of place in 1990.  The special effects are juvenile, with the helicopters sometimes visibly shown as children's toy models.

The tag line is pretty awful too:  "The best just got better."  What does that even mean?  I don't understand.

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Flight of the Intruder (1990)

Flight of the Intruder.

The Worst!

In what is self-descibed as a "speculative" drama (meaning: Fake! Not Real!) a Vietnam pilot decides that if he just bombs everyone to death, he could win the war, his hypothesis being that this "care for civilians" that the Pentagon requires of troops is holding back the real war fighters.  He steals a jet and wins the war.  Bad acting, dialogue, and production values ensue!  And morally repugnant.

Ugh!  Skip this movie at all costs!

(Also one of my worst Vietnam movies of all time!)

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Memphis Belle (1990)

Memphis Belle.

The Best!

World War II bombardiers on their 25th mission.  The 25th mission, by the way, is the last one.  After that, you get to go home.  Of course, wouldn't you know it, the 25th mission turns out to be really dangerous.  Eric Stoltz, Matthew Modine, and Harry Connick, Jr. play the pilots in this earnest, family friendly, unabashedly sentimental ode to war-time pilots.  It's a fictional story (though why tell a fictional story when there are so many amazing real-life stories that can be told?), with some light thrills, and is ultimately harmless.  (Though typically, I prefer non-family friendly war movies.)

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Pearl Harbor (2001)

Pearl Harbor.

The Worst!

An awkward uncomfortable romance, historical inaccuracies all around, the timing of a comedy sitcom, leaden dialogue, and characters we don't care in the slightest about.

That about sums it up.

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Stealth (2005)


The Worst!

"Loud, preposterous, and predictable," reads the Rotten Tomatoes website for Stealth, which has scored an impressive 87% negative rating by critics, meaning 87 out of 100 critics actively disliked this film.

Which is unfortunate, because the film had potential.  The story involves three hotshot pilots recruited for a secretive testing program where they encounter a new jet, which is flown by Artificial Intelligence (A.I.).  

Here's how the film could have been interesting:  It's the speed of decision making in the cockpit that decides the outcome of most aerial dogfights.  Aerial combat theorists call this the "Decision Cycle" or OODA loop.  What if these decisions could be made by A.I. computers using instant and complex mathematical decisions?  Now THAT is an interesting film idea.

Unfortunately, Stealth does nothing with this idea except have the pilots get in a battle with the main computer for control of the jet.  As with all A.I. computers in the film, this A.I. computer doesn't place a value on human life and thus, will have to be retired.  Many explosions and after some aerial dog fighting with North Korea, the film (thankfully) ends.  

This is also one of the biggest box office disasters of all time, an expensive film that made very little at the box office.

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Red Tails (2012)


The Worst!

George Lucas produced this fictionalized portrayal of the Tuskegee Airmen, which has been sited for embellishing the units success.  Which begs the point?  Why fictionalize?  The Tuskegee Airman don't need embellishing.  They should have enough heroic stories to just tell the actual stories of the real men that served.  We don't need fictionalized tales of real-life heroes.  The film is also pretty formulaic, with weak, shallow characters.  The real-life heroes these characters are modeled after deserve better.

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Good Kill (2015)

The Best!

The first war film to feature drones, the filmmakers realised they couldn't rely on aerial acrobatics any longer so instead they piled on the controversy an moral outrages as former jet fighters learn to kill from half a world away.  A film that shows how fighter pilots sitting in a shed in Las Vegas can still end up with PTSD without ever actually physically entering a war zone.