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.
In a post called The Reluctant Bomb Aimer, Canadian pilot Ed Kluczny described his fear when flying his Lancaster through bursting flak from anti-aircraft guns and attacks from enemy fighters. “I kept us busy so that the wrenching, numbing fear welling up from our guts only got high enough to make our hearts pound, but didn’t make it as far as our brains,” he said.
It's hard to imagine that kind of terror, until you watch this video clip. (I’ve included a video link for each movie, average length three minutes, so you can see the action for yourself.)
1. The Mighty Eighth
UPDATE: Since this blog post was prepared, I have been informed that the trailer for this movie called The Mighty Eighth is separate from Steven Spielberg’s untitled miniseries about The Mighty Eighth. Neither has begun production yet, but with any luck we will see TWO new aviation movies within the next couple of years.
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 here.
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. Here's a clip from the movie, with the Luftwaffe pilots speaking German.
4. The Dam Busters, 1955
Previously I wrote about another hotly-anticipated new movie, a remake of the 1955 classic The Dam Busters by Hobbit producer Peter Jackson. Colour film and special effects should do wonders for this jaw-dropping story of the Royal Air Force’s successful 1943 raid on three German dams. To read my previous post, click: The Dam Busters.
More to the point, read my interview with one of the last wo surviving dambusters in the world, Canadian Fred Sutherland, by clicking here: The Last Canadian Dambuster.
But the old British-made black-and-white film with Michael Redgrave is well worth watching (despite the dog’s controversial name, which you can read about by clicking Dambuster Dog. ) Watch the movie trailer here.
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.
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 bombers on their raids.
Starring Laurence Fishburne, this isn’t your usual wartime fare, but it has some good flying scenes. Watch the original movie trailer here.
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.
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.
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. To read more about them, click Americans in the RCAF.)
And to read more about the filming of this movie in wartime Ontario, click: The Making of Captains of the Clouds.
Here's the original movie trailer from 1942.
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. (Click Growing Up With Air Force Ghosts for more.)
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.
That's it, folks! Hopefully we will see a resurgence of interest in wartime aviation movies if Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have their way. In the meantime, I welcome your recommendations. What’s your favourite wartime flick, and why?
(To see some reader recommendations, visit my blog post called Canada: A Perilous Place for a Pilot, and scroll to the bottom.)
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