Accuracy in Aviation Movies — Good or Bad — Hollywood’s Films Retelling of History?

Nov 08, 2011 56 Comments by

The new George Lucas film “Red Tails” a film about the WW2 Tuskegee Airman, is still several months away from release and already there’s a wave of “Pros and Cons” about whether people will want to go and see it or not because of all the hype! Let’s face it Hollywood has produced some really amazing and entertaining films based on true events from aviation history. My favorite of all would have to be “30 Seconds over Tokyo” with Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson, but I am showing my age here. A short list of smash hit aviation movies would include:

   

  • Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines
  • The Great Waldo Pepper
  • The Blue Max
  • Top Gun
  • The Rocketeer
  • The Aviator
  • Pearl Harbor
  • Flyboys
  • The Red Baron–The Movie

  

Classics like “Wings”, “The Dawn Patrol”, “The War Lover, “The Bridges over Toko Ri”, and “Catch 22″ will forever be with us. There are hundreds more! From the remake of the “Flight of the Phoenix” and the ghost/love story “Always,” the aircraft and flight scenes, in our opinion, always steal the show!

Whether you think a film soars like an “Eagle” or is an over-done “Turkey,” as far as the editors are concerned, these are the best forms of “Silver Screen” entertainment and certainly should not be confused with true documentary. Why do so many full-size pilots and serious RC scale modelers love to “Hate” Avitation Films? They all certainly get their fair share of “nit picking!”

  

So what’s your take? What’s your favorite and worst movie votes!? Tell us what you feel about dropping your green backs to watch an aviation movie! Worth the money, or not. We really want to know what you think!

Featured News, Gerry Yarrish

About the author

Senior Technical Editor About Me: I have a lifelong passion for all things scale, and I love to design, build and fly scale RC airplanes. With 20 plus years as part of the Air Age family of magazines, I love producing Model Airplane News and Electric Flight.

56 Responses to “Accuracy in Aviation Movies — Good or Bad — Hollywood’s Films Retelling of History?”

  1. Graeme Ellis says:

    GAH! Having EVERY SINGLE German fighter in “Flyboys” a BRIGHT RED DR.1 nearly killed me. It doesn’t matter that only around 300 were built, most were immediately recalled due to spar failure, and they were not even a particularly good aircraft…Still enjoyed the film, though, but it seemed like the dogfights were a massive cliche’.

  2. fhhuber says:

    Hollywood never lets reality get in the way of a movie’s plotline….

  3. Gerry Yarrish says:

    Ain’t that the Truth! Oh and I forgot another one of my favorites! “The Spirit of St. Louis” !

    • Zeca Ribamar says:

      Gerry, you remember Tmavomodry svet (Dark Blue World) about Czechoslovak pilots who fought for the British Royal Air Force? and the best “The Final Contdown” with Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen and Katharine Ross?

  4. Bob Lundeen says:

    Tora Tora Tora was the most accurate aviation and war movie made, The term Docudrama was invented for this movie. I just saw a Zero mock up from the movie fly at an airshow.
    Pearl Harbor was one of the worse, A sappy love story with WWII as a sub plot , The only historically accurate thing about the movie was that WWII actually happened. Just listen to was Jimmy Doolitle’s grand daughter said about it!

  5. Pete Juergens says:

    I would pick Flyboys as my favourite, but then I am partial to WWI aircraft. I thought the movie itself and all the computer animation of the dogfighting was pretty darn cool. The worst aviation movie ever….I’d have to agree with Bob Lundeen and say Pearl Harbour.

  6. Martin Ramirez Jr says:

    If you love airplanes like many, many of us do, all movies with either or about airplanes are great, the characters are frosting on the cake.

  7. RC parts says:

    please stick with the facts as far to many people watch a movie and that becomes fact in their minds . In other words Hollywood changes history. Aviation movies if not the only area Hollywood has changed or invented history.

  8. Richard Dimberio says:

    1.Aviator
    2.TwelveO’ClockHigh
    3.Flyboys
    4.ThoseDaringYoungMenandtheirflyingmachines.
    5PearlHarbor
    6SecondHandLions

  9. Kevin Blakely says:

    ” The Battle of Britain ” does it for me. One of my all time favorite movies.

  10. Larry Launstein Jr says:

    I do like Tora, Tora, Tora. Also Midway had some great airplane sequences. One that hasn’t been mentioned yet is Flying Tigers with John Wayne. I have always loved the P-40 Warhawk, and the story about how they helped keep China in World War II. The P-40 Warhawk is my all-time favorite plane, and I love those tiger shark teeth!!! Another movie that used an airplane, with a sad result, was Knute Rockne-All America. As anyone who follows college football knows, Rockne died in a plane crash. The plane featured in that movie was a Ford Tri-motor. Among the TV shows, I have always loved Black Sheep Squadron. I used to like Top Gun, but Tom Cruise’s real-life behavior has worn thin on me.

  11. Gene King says:

    For us younger kids (66) my favorite is Top Gun. This is from an old Vietnam vet who served with the 1st Cav. Div. July 67-July 68 as an infantry platoon leader. Happen Veterans Day and thanks for all who are or have served in the US military!!!!!!

  12. james wood says:

    Dawn Patrol is my all time favorite second is The Blue Max. worse one in my opinion is Pearl Harbor, A soap Opera with some planes in it

  13. Norman Franzino says:

    You forgot my favorit movie, “MIDWAY”
    It was the turning point of the war in the Pacific!

  14. Wayne says:

    The whole point of any war movie is to show that good eventually triumphs over evil. Just as there are no ugly airplanes, there’s no such thing as a bad war movie. The movie may not be accurate but it’s still a war movie. Entertainment is the goal here. If you want accuracy go to the source, not to Hollywood.

    Wayne
    BC Air Originals

    • Phil Hultin says:

      “The whole point… show that good eventually triumphs over evil”?
      “…there’s no such thing as a bad war movie”

      Hmmmm. Sounds like propaganda to me. War movies are especially prone to propagandizing. Whenever you sacrifice accuracy for entertainment you are edging closer to propaganda.

  15. Bob Monk says:

    Twelve O’clock High one of the best. Pearl Harbor absolutely the worst!

  16. Robert says:

    More for the list of great aviation films

    1.The Right Stuff
    2.Battle of Britain
    3. Hells Angels
    4. Strategic Air Command
    5. The Spirit of St. Louis

  17. Ron Haward says:

    My all time favorite movie is The Battle of Britain which was a very accurate portrayal of the greatest air battle ever fought to preserve our freedom. Go bless “The Few”.

  18. R Caso says:

    The Battle of Britian and 12 O”clock high are the greatest avaition movies in the history of the world. Dawn Patrol and the Blue Max are excellent.

  19. R Caso says:

    The Battle of Britain and 12 Oclock High are the greatest aviation movies in the history of the world

    • J Sohm says:

      I have to agree with R Caso followed by Tora Tora Tora. Pearl Harbor and Flyboys were “entertaining” but only if you were watching it with the lady of the house because both were more chick-flick than war film. Keep in mind though that I wouldn’t mind at all playing house with Kate Beckinsale.

  20. William J. Hunchis says:

    Twelve O’clock High. Captures the true emotion of what these young brave men accopmlished early in the air war over Euorpe.

  21. Paul B says:

    Tora Tora Tora is another one,along with Memphis Belle

  22. G. E. Horton says:

    B-25 was my airplane so “30 Seconds over Tokyo” the best.
    “Pearl Harbor ” the very worst.

  23. Peter Lynch says:

    tora tora tora, I think is 1 of the greatest and 12 o’clock high the tv series was awesome best for me. along with the battle of britain pearl harbor was a good one as well. Bridge over the river Qui, They were Expendable with John Wayne.y altime Favorite is The Battle of Midway! Along with Tora! Tora! Tora!

  24. John says:

    You lads have left out 1969 “Battle of Britain” which in my opinion has the best and most acurate airial combat sequences ever put in a movie.

  25. Scott McGowin says:

    The makers and actors of Pearl Harbor should be stood before a wall, forced to apologize to every remaining veteran of WW-2 (regardless of side of service!) then shot.
    The Great Waldo Pepper, The Blue Max, Spirit of St. Louis and the Battle of Britain rank high on my “best of” list.
    Les Chevaliers du ciel is cheesy but the cinematography is great!
    Flyboys and Der Rote Baron fail in that you can’t capture the essence of flight with CGI. The butchering of the historic side is also inexcusable.
    My one wish is that someone would bring us just one truly great aviation movie of WW-1….. are you listening Peter Jackson?

  26. Scott Orten RCAIR says:

    Top Gun for me is my best, one of the Pearl Harbors would be next.

  27. Richard Bonnardel says:

    I was stationed at Hickam when they filmed Tora, Tora, Tora….it was eerie to be on the flightline the day they filmed attacking Hickam. The modified AT-6′s made to look like Zeros had strobe lights in the wings that flashed as they “strafed ” the base. Slient but very spooky to watch, agree best aviation movie that can never happen again……they used full size aircraft not computer simulations. they had 3 crashes making that movie with 2 pilots killed. Side note they used wooden P-40′s that were destroyed when they attached Wheeler field….one is still parked there. Also the Arizona that blew up was a 30 foot wooden replica.

  28. Rich Drescher says:

    Probably my favorite film in this category would be “Twelve O’Clock High”. It not only brought home the heroism of the men (boys) who fought for our freedom during WWII it also is provides great lesson in the stress and pitfals of leadership.

  29. E Karamus says:

    You forgot Toro toro toro

  30. Chris says:

    I was in my pre and early teens when Battle of Britain and Tora Tora Tora came out. Also had lots of boring family reunions and weddings back then. So my Dad would sneak me away to the movie theater. Never got caught!

  31. Jim says:

    Top Gun for realism in the flight scenes for the modern era. So sad they parked the F-14s. Flight of the Intruder best Vietnam era with Bridges of Toko Ri for Korea, Tora Tora Tora for WWII and Flyboys for WWI. Tuskeegee Airmen stand alone for what they accomplished.

  32. Paul says:

    Battle of Britain without a doubt, seen it at least a dozen times and it still sends a shiver up teh spine. The love aspect is a little tiresome but with such a great cast and fantastic planes, Wow.
    Second is 633 Squadron, those Mosquitoes are awsome.

  33. Dave Tallha says:

    I was just at Ford Island Aircraft Museum at Pearl Harbor. It is a great museum and well worth the time. Behind the second hangar on the flight line they still have a lot of the mockup planes used in the movie. That was as interesting as the museum itself.

    Favorite movie: Battle of Brittan

  34. Robert says:

    My favorite is the Flying Leathernecks with John Wayne and second would be the Battle of Britian.

  35. ED says:

    Final Countdown anyone ?

  36. Charles Wehler says:

    One of my favorites is Strategic Air Command with Jimmy Stewart. Lovingly filmed by Frank Tallman. Mosquito squadrom is also quite good with great shots of the Mosquito.

  37. Curt says:

    The Red Baron was historically laughable almost making it hard to watch. They did a pretty good job of recreating Aircraft and colours, Battle of Britian,Blue Max, Spirit of St. Louis, Magnificant Men in Their Flying Machines and Dambusters are all great Aviation movies. Also Memphis Belle had some great B17 footage.

  38. Tony says:

    Can’t forget the High and the Mighty.

  39. Carlos says:

    One of my favorites is a 1930′s movie called ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS about mail pilots in a South America jungle. I guess it is not well known but it is worth the time watching it.
    Many of my favorites movies have been mentioned:

    12 o’clock high
    The War Lover
    Memphis Belle (I prefer the original documentary)
    Air Force
    Tora Tora Tora

    Have you seen TEST PILOT with Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable?

  40. Gaylan says:

    One of my favorite movies that has not been mentioned is Iron Eagle. The 1st of 4, and in my opinion, the best of the four. But any movie that has aircraft in it from WW1 to now always has my attention. I also watch Strategic Air Command with Jimmy Stewart any time it comes on. and any WWII aircraftget me all excited, Like Black sheep squadron. The biggest thing that I always hate in a movie is when they substitute flying clips of one type of aricraft, calling it something else. Ex. when the main character/aircraft shoot the enemy down and calls it a Mig and they show a F-5 tiger or F-4 getting shot down, and when they show one type of large Airliner or transport taking off and when they show it flying by it is something completly different. That just really irks me to no end, can’t the movie industry get it right ?

  41. PMV says:

    How could no one have Memphis Belle on their list? ? ?
    But the worst movie that I loved the most for the planes in it is still 633 Squadrun with it’s “Mossies”.

  42. Gaylan says:

    My Favorites are the 1st Iron Eagle and Strategic Air Command, I love any movie that deals with airplanes of any tye and era. I hate it when they show one type of aircraft taking off and then show another completely different type flying past and it supposedly being the same aircraft. or when the good guys shot down and ME-109 and show it actually being a P-51B or a F-5 Tiger or F-4 phantom and call them Mig.s or shen the plane got shot or blown out of the sky and they show footage of a Remote Drone aircart exploding; And it’s always the same footage with each plane shot down.

  43. Don Horneff says:

    I watch these type movies for their entertainment value, not their accuracy. Heck, I’ve seen some “docudramas” that are more inaccurate than some of these movies.

    Top Gun still my favorite. Tora! Tora! Tora!, Strategic Air Command,

    One Six Right (Still waiting for Terwilliger’s next in this type.)

  44. Bob says:

    Loved the Great Waldo Pepper, and Blue Max, I can remember being allowed to stay up very late as child and watch Blue Max because my mom knew how much I loved flying and that my Grandfather had taught me how to fly. One of my favorites though is The Spirit of St. Louis, nothing like having an actor like Jimmy Steward who also had a passion for flying playing the part of Lindbergh.

  45. geink says:

    some movies show the movey stars in the cockpit with there oxgen mask floping around there face, I wonder how they can breathe at 40,000 ft., is that phony or what.

  46. James Marble says:

    Best Worst

    Battle of Britian Iron Eagle
    Squadron 633 Pearl Harbor
    Hells Angles
    Dawn Patrol
    12 O’clock High
    Avaitor
    Blue Max
    Top Gun
    Flying Tigers

  47. Gerry Yarrish says:

    Hey Zeca, sorry I do not know about “Dark Blue World” but will check it out! The Final Countdown was pretty good! The story of sending the USS Nimitz back in time to Dec. 7 1941, was a great storyline, but it would have been a little bit interesting if they had stopped the attack! Open the door to whole sorts of “What if” discussion!
    thanks for your comments!
    GY

  48. Dannie says:

    Hey, dudes…leave us not forget the airplane movies from the comedy genre. The two that immediately leap to my mind are Leslie Nielson’s “Airplane” and John Belushi’s “1941.” I am sure that I am forgetting many others.

  49. Vic Minetola says:

    Youse don’t stay up late enough. I gotta say Back from Eternity is my all-time favorite av movie. Starring Robert Ryan supported by a DC-3(my aircraft of choice) and a stellar cast of recognizable actors and actresses is so well done and suspenseful for all its corny plot. B & W, the ‘Doug’ is featured in almost every scene, flying or in some state of disrepair. Did I say corny? Think welding a cracked jug in the campfire and hack-sawing the bent tips from a three-blade Halmiton – and they only had a pliers and a screwdriver(well plus the hacksaw)! That Gooney did get ‘em(well some of ‘em) out of the jungle though. Youse gotta see it sometime.

    That is an impressive list summa you threw out there however. There’s some tough-to-top titles offered. “Those Magnificent … Machines” does it for me. And don’t forget Wings, a WW I silent(1927) with Buddy Rogers and a bit part featuring Gary Cooper. Oh! Bridges at Toko Ri is among the best; I see at least one of youse got it on your list.

    I saw The High and the Mighty as a kid and I loved it. However I watched a re-run recently(some 50 years later) and was appalled; it was awful and even uncomfortable to watch, it was so bad. I sure liked(still like) the DC-6 though.

    Throttle and props at 30 and 30. Let ‘er roll!

    VM

  50. Daniel West says:

    Did anyone see the modern Spruance class destroyers moored in “Pearl Harbour”?

  51. Jim Oesterle says:

    Top Gun was a comedy..No ladies and no little boys. Pearl Harbor was a travesty. Toko Ri was Skyraiders and Corsairs, not Panthers – but jets are more glamorous. 12 o’clock High had good feeling to it. So did Battle of Britain. Aviator had great models.

  52. Mark Trott says:

    The Battle of Britian , The Blue Max, Dawn Patrol and 12 O”clock high are the greatest avaition movies to date. War movies have become Love stories/message movies with the war as a back drop. I think we all know what the meesage is going to be with the in the new muskeegee film. Just another Martin Luther King Film in uniform.

  53. George Negraiff says:

    Some other “Oldies but Goodies” that no one has mentioned are:
    Task Force
    Flying Leathernecks
    Men of the Fighting Lady
    Flat Top
    I guess I’m partial to aircraft carriers and naval aviation.
    Battle of Britain is my all time best for realism and accuracy.
    George

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