Here’s my top ten list of wartime aviation movies – beginning with one that hasn’t even been made yet! The Mighty Eighth, produced by Steven Spielberg, is a planned new miniseries featuring the young men who flew B-17 bombers in the U. S. Eighth Air Force.
1. The Mighty Eighth
(NOTE: Since first writing this blog post in 2014, this trailer for a forthcoming movie called The Mighty Eighth has been widely viewed. However, no such movie has ever been made! Nevertheless, this video clip is fun to watch and shows what CGI, or computer-generated imagery, can lend to a Second World War action movie.)
To view the trailer, click here: The Mighty Eighth.
Before going any farther with my list, I will state the obvious. Most wartime movies focus on Americans, because the global movie industry headquarters are in Hollywood. I expect we would see a different version of history if the movie moguls lived in Vancouver, or London, or Sydney, or Berlin. But they don’t, so that’s that.
2. Memphis Belle, 1990
Watching the trailer for The Mighty Eighth, I couldn’t help thinking that it looks like a fancier, slicker version of the 1990 movie Memphis Belle, starring Matthew Modine, based on a true story about an American bomber crew’s last mission over Germany.
The movie has been criticized for being overly sentimental and cheesy, but it is nevertheless tremendously exciting and MY all-time favourite wartime flick.
See the original movie trailer by clicking here: Memphis Belle.
3. Battle of Britain, 1969
The film with an all-star cast including Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier and Christopher Plummer (playing an RCAF airman) endeavoured to be an accurate account of the 1940 Battle of Britain, when the Royal Air Force soundly defeated the German Luftwaffe and forced Hitler to cancel his plans to invade Britain.
The film is notable for its spectacular flying sequences. To see a clip from the movie, with the Luftwaffe pilots speaking German, click here: Battle of Britain.
4. The Dam Busters, 1955
There are rumours of another hotly-anticipated new movie, a remake of the 1955 classic The Dam Busters by Hobbit producer Peter Jackson. But my hopes are fading as this never seems to come about.
More to the point, read my interview with Fred Sutherland, who died in 2019, by clicking here: The Last Canadian Dambuster.
Watch the trailer for the original movie here: The Dam Busters.
5. Twelve O’Clock High, 1949
Eighth Air Force bomber group commander Gregory Peck is pushed to the limit as he sends his men to certain death over the skies of Germany.
At one point he tells them it will be easier to deal with the fear if you “consider yourselves already dead.” See his speech here: Twelve O’Clock High.
6. Tuskegee Airmen, 1995
This TV movie was based on the true story about a group of African American pilots who overcame racial oppression to become one of the finest fighter groups in the U.S., accompanying bomber raids.
Starring Laurence Fishburne, this isn’t your usual wartime fare, but it has some good flying scenes. Watch the movie trailer here: Tuskegee Airmen.
7. Catch 22, 1970
Here’s a black comedy from the book by Joseph Heller, more realistic than most wartime propaganda movies. An American pilot played by Alan Arkin tries to convince his commanding officer that he’s crazy, so he doesn’t have to fly any more raids over Italy.
Everyone has heard the famous expression, “Catch 22.” The book, and the movie, is where it originated. Watch the video clip here: Catch-22.
8. Mrs. Miniver, 1942
This is an aviation movie only because it shows how civilians coped with being bombed. Made during the height of the war when victory was still uncertain, this black-and-white classic features Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson as an upper-crust couple struggling through the Battle of Britain.
It’s a heart-warming, patriotic movie that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1942. See the original movie trailer here: Mrs. Miniver.
The last two movies are tribute to my Canadian roots, although both were made by American companies.
9. Captains of the Clouds, 1942
James Cagney stars in his first colour movie, about an American bush pilot who joins the Royal Canadian Air Force for fun but finds himself having to prove his worth when he goes to war. (In fairness, the RCAF had plenty of American volunteers, whose contribution has been sadly neglected. Here’s the original movie trailer from 1942: Captains of the Clouds.
10. For the Moment, 1995
This movie was filmed in Manitoba, about rookie flyers at a British Commonwealth Air Training station. Sadly, Canada’s contribution to the war effort in the form of training 130,000 flyers has now largely been forgotten.
In this movie, Russell Crowe plays a trainee with the Royal Australian Air Force who falls in love with a local girl who is unfortunately already married, not an uncommon scenario in those days. It isn’t a well-known movie, but it’s interesting in part because of Crowe’s youthfulness. Take a gander here: For the Moment.
That’s it, folks! Hopefully we will see a resurgence of interest in wartime aviation movies.
Note: Following this post, several readers wrote to add their own suggestions:
- Reach for the Sky, 1956, starring Kenneth More. The true story of airman Douglas Bader who overcame the loss of both legs in a 1931 flying accident to become a successful fighter pilot and wing leader during World War Two.
- Appointment in London (titled Raiders in the Sky in the U.S.), 1953, starring Dirk Bogarde. Wing Commander Tim Mason leads a squadron of Lancaster bombers. He makes sure his men concentrate on their job by keeping women away from the base, but then he meets naval officer Eve Canyon.
- Command Decision, 1948, starring Clark Gable. U.S. Army generals struggle with the decision to bomb the German factories producing new jet fighters, knowing the extremely high casualties the mission will cost.
- 633 Squadron, 1964, starring Cliff Robertson. An RAF squadron is assigned to knock out a German rocket fuel factory in Norway, part of the Nazi effort to launch rockets during D-day, by flying up a well-defended fjord.
- Spitfire, or The First of the Few, 1942, starring Leslie Howard and David Niven. Biopic of aircraft designer R.J. Mitchell whose Spitfire became one of the mainstays of the RAF in World War Two.
- The War Lover, 1962, starring Steve McQueen. Buzz Rickson is a dare-devil bomber pilot with a death wish. Failing at everything not involving flying, Rickson lives for the most dangerous missions.