Kathy and I saw the new Top Gun: Maverick movie recently at The Grand in Stamford. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it got me to thinking about other classic movies dealing with aviation, planes and pilots. All of these movies listed here were made before there was any such thing as computer-generated effects, so when it looks like the pilots are performing amazing feats of aerial daring-do, they really are.
As always, I’m not saying these are the best films ever made, and it’s certainly not an exhaustive list of aviation movies. And remember this is for “Classics,” which for our purposes applies to movies that are at least 30 years old. Otherwise, I might have to include 2004’s The Aviator with Leonardo Di Caprio and Cate Blanchett, or 2012’s Red Tails with Cuba Gooding, Jr, Terrance Howard, and Michael B. Smith.
But I digress.
5. Top Gun, 1986 – Tom Cruise stars as “Sierra Hotel” naval aviator Pete Mitchell, call sign “Maverick.” He gets sent to the Navy’s elite school for air-to-air combat, learns what it means to be part of a team, struggles with great personal loss, and finds love along the way. Tragically, veteran stunt pilot Art Scholl was killed while filming a flat-spin maneuver for this movie. Also with Anthony Edwards, Kelly McGillis, Meg Ryan, Val Kilmer, and Tom Skerritt, and directed by Tony Scott.
4. The Right Stuff, 1983 – Who’s the best pilot you ever saw? Okay, yes, the book by Tom Wolfe is better, but this is still pretty good. The movie opens with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepherd) breaking the sound barrier and goes on to cover the development of the American space program, the origins of NASA, and choosing the first seven Mercury astronauts. Also with Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, and Barbara Hershey.
3. The Great Waldo Pepper, 1975 – Robert Redford stars as a barnstorming pilot in the 1920s, a veteran flyer of World War I, who struggles to find the same honor and chivalry on the ground that he knew in aerial combat. Directed by George Roy Hill, and co-starring Susan Sarandon, Edward Herrmann, Bo Svenson, and Geoffrey Lewis. Most of this movie was filmed in (and above) the Texas Hill Country, and the aerial shots were not filmed in a studio – that really IS Robert Redford out there, climbing out of the cockpit, without a parachute.
2. The Blue Max, 1966 – Young George Peppard plays handsome but obnoxious pilot Lt. Bruno Stachel. Disliked as lower-class and overly ambitious, he tries to gain acceptance among his fellow pilots in the German Air Force of 1918 by earning the “Blue Max,” the highest German medal awarded for aerial combat, given for shooting down 20 enemy planes. Also starring Ursula Andress, Jeremy Kemp, and James Mason. This movie has a number of absolutely amazing aerial sequences.
1. The High and the Mighty, 1954 – Written by aviation writer Ernest K. Gann from his novel, and directed by William Wellman. What does it really mean to be a “pilot,” to push the envelope and test the limits? John Wayne stars as the First Officer on a commercial flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, under airline Captain Robert Stack. Also with Claire Trevor, Paul Fix, and Phil Harris. This movie would become the template for every big disaster picture made in the 60s and 70s, and Robert Stack would parody his character in the 1980 spoof, Airplane! But this is truly a classic.
Five more favorite films about flying –
Wings, 1927 – Winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture, and the only silent movie ever to win it. Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, and Gary Cooper star in a great flick about pilots who fall for the same nurse.
Only Angels Have Wings, 1939 – Cary Grant as a pilot trying to run an aerial cargo service in South America and deal with Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. Also starring Thomas Mitchell (1939 was a busy year for him!) and directed by Howard Hawks.
The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, 1944 – A documentary about an actual B-17 bomber successfully completing 25 combat missions over Europe; directed by noted filmmaker William Wyler.
Twelve O’Clock High, 1949 – Gregory Peck as the tough-as-nails commander of a “hard-luck” squadron of B-17s in World War II. This is an awesome story of real leadership. Dean Jagger won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Hugh Marlowe co-stars.
The Spirit of St. Louis, 1957 – Jimmy Stewart stars in a docudrama about Charles Lindbergh’s first successful trans-Atlantic flight. Directed by Billy Wilder.
Well, that’s about it, so now please return your seat backs and tray tables to their full upright and locked positions and prepare for landing. And save me some popcorn.