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Top 10 Films About Planes and Pilots

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With Top Gun: Maverick flying high in the box-office charts and Spitfire Over Berlin and Lancaster also landing in UK theatres. Cinema Paradiso thinks it's time to take to the skies. Chocks away!

A still from Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
A still from Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

The early days of powered flight and projected pictures overlap. Just as Lyon siblings Louis and Auguste Lumière perfected the Cinématographe, Orville and Wilbur Wright hovered over Kitty Hawk in the Wright Flyer. Similarly, around the time that Georges Méliès was transforming moving images from a novelty into an artform, Louis Blériot was preparing to become the first person to fly the Channel. Moreover, in the same year that Charles Lindbergh flew non-stop from New York to Paris, Al Jolson spoke the lines in Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927) that resulted in silent cinema giving way to the talkies.

According to the esteemed film historian Luke McKernan, the first footage of a craft in flight appears to have shown British pioneer Percy Pilcher piloting his glider, 'The Hawk', on 20 June 1897. Only seven frames survive, but they predate the Lumière offering, Départ d'une montgolfière, which records a hot-air balloon taking off. The same year, a Lumière operative cranked his camera in a basket to shoot Panorama pris d'un ballon captif (1898), which seems to be the first example of aerial cinematography.

In 1901, Brazilian aeronaut Alberto Santos-Dumont steered his blimp around the Eiffel Tower before a watching cameraman from the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. This footage is lost, but it is possible to see Santos-Dumont become the first person to be filmed flying an aeroplane in a brief clip from October 1906 of his 14-bis craft. Three years later, the Wright brothers got into the movie act when the Société Générale des Cinématographes Eclipse fixed a camera to the wing of the Wright Flyer on 24 April 1909 to capture the first aerial footage taken from a heavier-than-air aircraft for Wilbur Wright and His Flying Machine.

Given the 'need for speed' thrills on offer in Joseph Kosinski's Top Gun: Maverick (2022), these scratchy, jittery archive images may seem somewhat tame. Without these events, however, the world would be a very different place, as Stephen Low explains in his documentary, Legends of Flight (2010).

In Their Flying Machines

Despite the best efforts of Eric Idle and Terry Jones, it's not possible to learn much about the achievements of Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier from 'The Golden Age of Ballooning' episode from Series 4 of Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74). However, Tom Harper goes some way to making amends with The Aeronauts (2019), a fictionalisation of historical facts that follows the exploits in 1860s London scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) and pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones).

The prehistory of flight is neatly summed up in the prologue to Ken Annakin's Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965). However, the subtitle encapsulates the gist of the main plot, 'How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes', as pioneer aviators Richard Mays (James Fox), Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas), Colonel Manfred von Holstein (Gert Fröbe), Pierre Dubois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi) and Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman) compete for the £10,000 offered by newspaper tycoon Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley) to the winner of the race.

Only four years after this cosmopolitan scramble, the Great War broke out and airplanes demonstrated their combat potential for the first time. Screenwriter Howard Barker repurposed R. C. Sheriff's classic Western Front play, Journey's End (filmed by Saul Dibb in 2017), as a Royal Flying Corps story in Jack Gold's Aces High (1976), in which Malcolm McDowell seeks to protect fellow Etonian Peter Firth from the grimmer realities of squadron life in northern France. On the German side, Jeremy Kemp plays Willi von Klugermann, the pilot who takes rookie Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) under his wing, in John Guillermin's take on Jack D. Hunter's novel, The Blue Max (1966).

A still from Von Richthofen and Brown (1971)
A still from Von Richthofen and Brown (1971)

As Roger Corman reveals in Von Richthofen and Brown (both 1971). however, the war's greatest rivalry involved Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen (John Philip Law ), and his Canadian nemesis, Roy Brown (Don Stroud). By casting Matthias Schweighöfer and Joseph Fiennes in The Red Baron (2008), Nikolai Müllerschön put a fresh interpretation on their dogfights by showing how the Kaiser had sought to exploit the heroics of the Imperial German Air Service in a bid to win a stalemated war.

By 1917, the US Army Air Service had joined the fight, as William A. Wellman recalls in Wings (1927), which joins boyhood pals David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) and Jack Powell (Charles 'Buddy' Rogers) over the trenches, as the latter suffers the psychological stress of becoming known as 'The Shooting Star'. Wellman was a veteran of the Lafayette Flying Corps. But it's the famous Lafayette Escadrille to which Tony Bill pays tribute in Flyboys (2006), which stars James Franco as a Texan who doesn't always see eye to eye with French squadron leader, Georges Thenault (Jean Reno).

If Arlen and Rogers had squabbled over girl next door, Clara Bow, it was Jean Harlow who caused Royal Flying Corps siblings Ben Lyon and James Hall to cross swords in Howard Hughes's Hell's Angels (1930). Harlow was actually a replacement for Swede Greta Nissen, as the debuting director took so long over the aerial sequences that he had to recast what had started out as a silent production with a leading lady with an all-American accent. As Martin Scorsese divulges in The Aviator (2004), Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) would remain obsessed with actresses like Katharine Hepburn (the Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett) and aeroplanes. Indeed, he formed the Hughes Aircraft Company and bought Trans World Airlines while seeking to break records with his monumental bird, 'The Spruce Goose'.

Terry O'Quinn plays a fictionalised version of Hughes in Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer (1991), a spin-off from the Dave Stevens comic that is set in Los Angeles in 1938 and sets Hughes and the FBI on the tail of Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), a stunt pilot who transforms himself into a daredevil after finding an experimental jet pack. The action includes a brush with a Nazi airship, which is clearly modelled on the zeppelin in Robert Wise's The Hindenburg (1975), which follows Luftwaffe security expert Colonel Fritz Ritter (George C. Scott) in his bid to prevent the craft from being sabotaged during a flight over New York in May 1937.

Still resentful at being denied the chance to undertake combat missions, flight instructor Robert Redford sets up a barnstorming circus with Bo Svensson in 1920s America in George Roy Hill's The Great Waldo Pepper (1975). John Frankenheimer had touched upon the stunt flying circuit in The Gypsy Moths (1969), but the potential of aviation had been greatly expanded by the Charles Lindbergh flight memorialised by Billy Wilder in The Spirit of St Louis (1957), which was headlined by USAF war veteran James Stewart and really should be available on disc in the UK.

The kidnap and murder of Lindbergh's son inspired Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, which has been filmed by both Sidney Lumet (1974) and Kenneth Branagh (2017) . However, Lindbergh's support for the anti-war America First Committee during the struggle against Nazi Germany has made him a tricky subject for biopic makers. Indeed, he even became president in the alternative history provided by the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2020).

By contrast, 'Lady Lindy' has cropped up on screen on several occasions, most notably in Mira Nair's Amelia (2009), in which record-breaking aviatrix Amelia Earhart was played by Hilary Swank. This speculation on her tragic fate came in the wake of Lothar Mendes's Flight For Freedom (1943), George Schaefer's Amelia Earhart (1976), Yves Simoneau's Amelia Earhart: The Final Flight (1994) and Shawn Levy's Night At the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009). But only 'The 37's' episode of Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2000) suggested that she had been abducted by aliens.

A still from High Road to China (1983)
A still from High Road to China (1983)

Piloting planes named Dorothy and Lillian after the silent-acting Gish sisters, 1920s fliers Patrick O'Malley (Tom Sellick) and Eve Tozer (Bess Armstrong) go in search of the heiress's missing father in High Road to China (1983), an adaptation of a Jon Cleary novel that Brian G. Hutton wound up directing after John Huston and Sidney J. Furie had ankled. Such assignments offered war veterans a whiff of adventure. But it was the everyday task of getting the mail across the Andes that drove gritty pictures like Clarence Brown's Night Flight (1933) and Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939), with the latter featuring one of the finest performance of Cary Grant's career as Barranca Aiways pilot, Geoff Carter.

It would be fascinating to know what Hawks would make of Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso (1992), which sees Italian ace Marco Pagot transformed into a pig, as he scours the Adriatic coast for air pirates. Miyazaki's reworking of his own watercolour manga is a delight, but it wasn't feted as much as The Wind Rises (2013), which was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe. A variation on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Zero fighter plane, this would make an instructive double bill from Cinema Paradiso with The First of the Few (1942), Leslie Howard's biopic of R.J. Mitchell, the creator of the Spitfire.

As war clouds gathered, the British film industry started producing items like Tim Whelan and Arthur B. Wood's Q Planes and The Lion Has Wings (both 1939), an unofficial tribute to the Royal Air Force that was produced by Alexander Korda and co-directed by Adrian Brunel, Brian Desmond Hurst and Michael Powell. With its dramatic inserts involving Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon, this documentary showed the way for wartime propaganda and led to Powell being teamed with Emeric Pressburger on the Ministry of Information projects, 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). as well as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in which RAF pilot David Niven has to argue for his life in a celestial courtroom after his plane is hit.

The Wings of War

Eight decades have passed since Adolf Hitler plunged the world into war and the courage of 'the few' who took to the skies against the Luftwaffe remains a source of pride and inspiration. Recently, a number of films have followed in the contrails of the classic 'now it can be told' features that had roused audiences in the postwar period. Among them are Jan Sverák's Dark Blue World (2001), David Blair's Hurricane, Denis Delic's 303 Squadron (both 2018) and the Callum Burns duo of Lancaster Skies (2019) and Spitfire Over Berlin (2022).

Adding to our knowledge of the RAF's heroic resistance are such documentaries as David Fairhead and Ant Palmer's Spitfire (2018) and Lancaster (2022). Narrated by Charles Dance and featuring interviews with several campaign veterans, the latter also includes clips from such seminal wartime actualities as Harry Watt's Target For Tonight (1941) and John Boulting's Journey Together (1945).

Cinema Paradiso has already paid homage to the air crews of the Second World War in The Battle of Britain and the Conflict in the Air. This is one of over 200 articles that are exclusive to Cinema Paradiso and offer users both unique insights into the history of movies and viewing recommendations to ensure you make the most of our unrivalled catalogue of over 10,000 titles on high-quality DVD, Blu-ray and 4D. Click on the Collections tag to see what's on offer and tell us about the discoveries you make on our social media pages. You might even want to debate what you read or suggest topics for future items.

As we cover dozens of titles in our 'Conflict in the Air' article, we shall confine ourselves to a few timeless favourites here. An all-star cast led by Laurence Olivier was assembled, for example, for Guy Hamilton's Battle of Britain (1969), but this fine film never quite caught the imagination in the same way as Michael Anderson's The Dam Busters (1955) and Walter Grauman's 633 Squadron (1964). Perhaps it's something to do with the theme tunes or the fact that the pictures recreated iconic operations that helped turn the war.

The unprovoked Japanese attack on a naval base in Hawaii brought the United State into the war in 1941. John Ford and Gregg Toland reminded compatriots of the day's events in December 7th (1943), a censored version of which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. Cinema Paradiso, however, presents the full 82-minute cut, which offers fascinating insights into Hollywood's early approach to film propaganda.

A still from Midway (2019)
A still from Midway (2019)

The raid has since been recreated in Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953), Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku's Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Don Taylor's The Final Countdown (1980) and Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor (2001). Another encounter that has long intrigued Hollywood has been chronicled in John Ford's The Battle of Midway (1942), Jack Smight's Midway (1976), Roland Emmerich's Midway and Mike Phillips's Dauntless: The Battle of Midway (both 2019).

William Wyler paid tribute to the crew of a remarkable USAF bomber in The Memphis Belle (1944) and Michael Caton-Jones recreated the B-17's final mission in Memphis Belle (1990). This is worth comparing with one of the few postwar American films to focus on the psychological strain of combat, Henry King's Twelve O'Clock High (1949), which earned Dean Jagger the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The subject of trauma was brilliantly satirised, however, in Mike Nichols's underrated adaptation of Joseph Heller's bestseller, Catch-22 (1970).

Another neglected aspect of the war has been the contribution of African American service personnel. It's not currently possible to see Robert Markowitz's The Tuskegee Airmen (1996). But Cinema Paradiso users can learn about the squadron in first-timer Anthony Hemingway's Red Tails (2012), which was produced by George Lucas, who had been planning the project since 1988. Terrence Howard, who stars as Colonel Bullard, had played another Tuskegee airman in Gregory Noblit's POW drama, Hart's War (2002).

This Is Your Captain Speaking

Some flyboys were determined to remain airborne after the war, as the demobbed Jack Ruskin (Roy Marsden) demonstrates by setting up Ruskin Air Services in the ITV series, Airline (1982). However, as bigger planes were introduced by commercial airlines to take passengers to the remotest parts of the planet, air travel acquired a new glamour. Film-makers started setting scenes aboard jets, but they were also quick to exploit the potential perils of aviation.

Among the first features to suggest that a captain couldn't always be in complete control of his craft was Henry Koster's No Highway in the Sky (1951), an adaptation of a Nevil Shute novel that shows how Captain Samuelson (Niall MacGinnis) is forced to bow to the superior knowledge of boffin Theodore Honey (James Stewart) after he detects metal fatigue on the tail of his Rutland Reindeer. Engine failure prompts co-pilot Dan Roman (John Wayne) to take over a DC-4 flying across the Pacific after Captain John Sullivan (Robert Stack) loses his nerve in William A. Wellman's take on Ernest K. Gann's novel, The High and the Mighty (1954).

A still from The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) With Richard Attenborough And James Stewart
A still from The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) With Richard Attenborough And James Stewart

In Cy Endfield's Jet Storm (1959), distraught scientist Ernest Tilley (Richard Attenborough) threatens to blow up the transatlantic plane being flown by Captain Bardow (Stanley Baker) to kill the man who had run over his young daughter. However, Attenborough's navigator, Lew Moran, found himself playing peacemaker between Captain Frank Towns (James Stewart) and aeronautical engineer Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger) when a Fairchild C-82 cargo plane ditches in the North African desert in Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). Elleston Trevor's novel was remade in 2004 by John Moore as Flight of the Phoenix, with Dennis Quaid as the skipper and Giovanni Ribisi as the engineer with a plan to get a crashed C-119 Flying Boxcar out of the Gobi Desert.

By the late 60s, Hollywood had established that high-rise peril was a hot topic and coralled an all-star cast for George Seaton's Airport (1970), an adaptation of an Arthur Haley bestseller that centres on the efforts of airport controller Mel Bakersfield (Burt Lancaster) to help Captain Anson Harris (Barry Nelson) and flight assessor Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin) cope with the news that passenger D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin) has brought a bomb aboard the Trans Global Boeing 707 bound for Rome.

As Helen Hayes won an Oscar for playing elderly stowaway Ada Quonsett and the film racked up $128 million on its $10 million outlay, it was decided to release a sequel. However, with the trend for disaster movies spiking, John Guillermin nipped in first with Skyjacked (1972), which tasked Captain Hank O'Hara (Charlton Heston) with landing a Boeing under threat from a bomber that winds up in Soviet airspace.

The producers were suitably impressed and hired Heston to play flight instructor Al Murdock, who is required to talk stewardess Nancy Pryor (Karen Black) through the landing procedure after Captain Stacy (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is blinded in Jack Smight's Airport 1975 (1974) after a small plane crashes into the cockpit of his Boeing 747.

The problems keep mounting for Captain Dan Gallagher (Jack Lemmon) in Jerry Jameson's Airport '77 (1977), as his co-pilot turns out to be an art thief after the collection of millionaire Philip Stevens (James Stewart). In taking over the 747, however, the gang crashes into an oil rig in the Bermuda Triangle. Just when passengers thought it was safe to go back into the air, however, David Lowell Rich released The Concorde... Airport '79 (1979). Alain Delon stars as Captain Paul Metrand, but audiences knew precisely what to expect when they first spotted Captain Joseph Patroni (George Kennedy), as he had been aboard all of the previous flights in the series.

With the plots becoming increasingly convoluted, it was only a matter of time before someone lampooned them. Enter Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, who borrowed the catering crisis from Hal Bartlett's Zero Hour! (1957) to ensure that hilarity ensued on the flight from Los Angeles to Chicago in Airplane! (1980). Robert Stack (see above) was rushed to the control tower to help traumatised Vietnam veteran Ted Striker (Robert Hays) take the controls after Captain Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) gets food poisoning. Hays and Julie Hagerty (as stewardess Elaine Dickinson) returned for Ken Finkleman's Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), as a mishap blights the maiden flight of Mayflower One, America's first commercial spacecraft.

Things got a bit quiet in the cockpit for a while, but First Officer Mike Hogan (Eric Roberts) was able to step up to the mark when his captain is knocked unconscious and he has to take control of a plane transporting a dangerous killer in Jon Cassar's Rough Air: Danger on Flight 534 (2001). Where's Frank Abagnale, Jr. when you need him? But, of course, he's only a teenager (Leonardo DiCaprio) pretending to be a PanAm pilot in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002) so he can swindle money from the company without taking going to flying school.

A still from Come Fly with Me: Series 1 (2010)
A still from Come Fly with Me: Series 1 (2010)

Cash doesn't interest Donna Jensen (Gwyneth Paltrow). She just wants the prestige of being a flight attendant and joins the low-budget Sierra company with Christine (Christina Applegate) and Sherry (Kelly Preston) in Bruno Barreto's comedy, View From the Top (2003). Sitcom fans will remember Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson getting into mischief on Air Scotia flights out of Prestwick Airport in the BBC's The High Life (1994), which found an echo in Paul King's Come Fly With Me (2010), a mockumentary that starred David Walliams and Matt Lucas and spoofed fly-on-the-wall shows like Airport (1996-2005) and Airline (1998-2007).

An entire sitcom series seems to have been packed into Pedro Almodóvar's I'm So Excited! (2013), as Captain Alex Acero (Antonio de la Torre) is visited in the cockpit by several passengers, including Bruna (Lola Dueñas), who has had a disconcerting premonition. Doubtless Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) wishes she had been given some kind of warning about what was to befall her when she joined a passenger in his Bangkok hotel room in The Flight Attendant (2020), the darkly comic thriller series adapted by Chris Bohjalian from his own novel.

Widowed aviation engineer Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) also begins to wonder why no one takes her word at face value in Robert Schwentke's Flightplan (2005), when neither Captain Marcus Rich (Sean Bean) nor sky marshal Gene Carson (Peter Sarsgaard) believes that her young daughter has gone missing on a flight from Berlin. This loose variation on Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938) shares a connection with Kunal Shivdasani's Hijack (2008), as ex-pilot Vikram Madan (Shiney Ahuja) has to face his demons when his daughter is held to ransom by terrorists demanding the release of their leader.

The pilot proves to be the problem in Robert Zemeckis's Flight (2012), although William 'Whip' Whitaker (an Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington) is initially hailed as a hero when he miraculously lands a plunging plane in an open field. However, a subsequent investigation reveals the extent of his dependency upon drink and drugs. Fortunately, even though his craft is failing and his fuel is running low, veteran flier Ray Steele (Nicolas Cage) manages to keep his wits about him when he finds himself 30,000ft up with a crew of lucky survivors after the world is suddenly plunged into chaos in Vic Armstrong's Left Behind (2014).

When it comes to overcoming the odds to land a plane safely, however, no one can top Chesley Sullenberger. He is played with typically reassuring sang froid by Tom Hanks in Sully (2016), Clint Eastwood's recreation of 'the Miracle on the Hudson' of 15 January 2009, when all 155 passengers and crew aboard US Airways Flight 1549 were imperilled by a flock of birds.

Flyboys

Hollywood has never let the facts stand in the way of a good story. Take David Miller's Flying Tigers (1942), which blithely ignores the fact that the American Volunteer Group didn't fly any missions against Japanese aircraft before Pearl Harbor to show Jim Gordon (John Wayne) leading bounty-hunting compatriots into action during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which commenced in 1937. The Duke was back at the joystick Nicholas Ray's Flying Leathernecks (1951), as Major Daniel Xavier Kirby gives Captain Carl Griffin (Robert Ryan) a rough ride for not instilling more discipline into the headstrong young pilots about to see action over Guadalcanal.

A still from The Sound Barrier (1952)
A still from The Sound Barrier (1952)

The need for speed established in such flagwaves carried on into the Cold War, as the battle for aerial supremacy went supersonic. Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick) is prepared to take risks in order to test the engine designed by father-in-law John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) in David Lean's The Sound Barrier (1952). However, the facts get tweaked here, too, as the first person to exceed 662mph at 40,000ft was Chuck Yeager, who was played by Sam Shepard in Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (1983).

Not all test flying was so thrilling, however. In Charles Crichton's The Man in the Sky, pilot John Mitchell (Jack Hawkins) only discovers the merits of a prototype while keeping it airborne after a malfunction in order to burn off excess fuel before attempting a landing. Such philosophical musings were rare in a sub-genre obsessed with daredevilry. But, in Josef von Sternberg's Jet Pilot (both 1957), love gets the better of political ideology, as Colonel Jim Shannon (John Wayne) falls for defecting Soviet pilot Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh) in spite of learning she's a spy. Howard Hughes had greenlit this picture while still head of RKO, but he interfered so much with the material that shooting sprawled from 1949-53, while post-production lasted another four years.

Intriguingly, some of the stunt flying was performed by Chuck Yeager to make it more authentic. However, over the eight years that Hughes tinkered, much of the hardware that had been cutting edge became obsolete. Everything was state of the art, however, about the Vindicator bombers accidentally unleashed on the Soviet Union in Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe and the B-52 that similarly goes rogue in Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (both 1964).

The Cold War was no nearer thawing when Clint Eastwood directed himself dropping behind enemy lines as veteran pilot Mitchell Gant to steal a hypersonic MiG-31 in Firefox (1982), which was adapted from a bestseller by Craig Thomas. While Gant was a Vietnam veteran, the pilots in Tony Scott's Top Gun (1986) undergoing training on the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor programme at Naval Air Station Miramar were not tainted by the failed campaign. Consequently, Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell (Tom Cruise), Nick 'Goose' Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) and Tom 'Iceman' Kazansky (Val Kilmer) have a swagger that makes them almost as cool as the F-14s they fly.

Even USN Officer Candidate Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) in his Dress Whites at the end of Taylor Hackford's An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) couldn't compete. Hence, the rapturous reception for Joseph Kosinski's Top Gun: Maverick, which sees Mitchell become an instructor for a group of Super Hornet aviators that includes Goose's son, Bradley 'Rooster' Bradshaw (Miles Teller).

Having earned a Best Supporting Oscar for putting Richard Gere through his AOCS paces (when he wasn't swooning over factory worker Debra Winger), Lou Gossett, Jr. took the role of Colonel Charles 'Chappy' Sinclair in Sidney J. Furie's Iron Eagle (1986) and its three sequels. In the original adventure, Sinclair (another Vietnam vet) agrees to join rookie Doug 'Thumper' Masters (Jason Gedrick) in a mission to the Arab state of Bilya to rescue his captured father.

Promoted to Brigadier General, Sinclair leads Operation Dark Star to prevent a Middle Eastern state from acquiring nuclear weapons in Furie's Iron Eagle II (1988). Adding to the complications, some Soviet pilots are brought into the team, while, in John Glen's Aces: Iron Eagle III (1992), Sueo Horikoshi (Sonny Chiba), a Japanese pilot flying a wartime Zero, joins Sinclair in hunting down the ex-Nazi running a drug cartel in Peru.

A still from Iron Eagle 4 (1995)
A still from Iron Eagle 4 (1995)

Furie returned to helm the final excursion, Iron Eagle IV (1995), which revived Doug Masters (in the form of Jason Cadieux) to help Sinclair and members of his flying school, including the fiercely independent Wheeler (Joanne Vannicola), to prevent the US using chemical weapons on its enemies under Operation Pandora. The reviews and the takings might have been modest at best, but this remains a rare example of a film in which women can fly just as well as their male counterparts.

Although everyone remembers the terrifying helicopter bombing raid in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), other Vietnam films with an aerial element have are less familiar. Among them is Peter Markle's Bat*21 (1988), a reconstruction of an incident that occurred during the last days of the conflict when electronic weapons expert Lieutenant Colonel Iceal E. Hambleton (Gene Hackman) ejected behind North Vietnamese lines and relied on Skymaster pilot Captain Bartholomew 'Birddog' Clark (Danny Glover) for his detection and rescue.

Laos is the setting for Roger Spottiswoode's Air America (1990), which follows suspended helicopter pilot Billy Covington (Robert Downey, Jr.) to Asia, where he is teamed with Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson), an opportunist flier who accepts covert CIA missions to fund his arms dealing business. This buddy comedy has its darker moments, as does John Milius's Flight of the Intruder (1991), an adaptation of a Stephen Coonts novel that stars Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe and Brad Johnson and examines the conduct of the war and the demands made upon pilots who sometimes took the law into their own hands when it came to targeting the enemy capital, Hanoi. Poor reviews resulted in this becoming Milius's last theatrical feature, but his uncompromising insights into American machismo still make for compelling viewing.

Having been part of the Airplane! triumvirate, Jim Abrahams took aim at Top Gun-style gung-hoedness in Hot Shots! (1991), which follows the rivalry between pilots Sean 'Topper' Harley (Charlie Sheen) and Kent Gregory (Cary Elwes) - who have daddy issues and a shared interest in shrink Ramada Thompson (Valeria Golino) - as they embark upon Operation Sleepy Weasel and an attack on an Iraqi nuclear facility. Like Abrahams and David Zucker's overlooked Top Secret! (1984), this is stuffed with guffaw-inducing gags and there are plenty more in Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993), which ridicules the John Rambo trilogy of Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982), George P. Cosmatos's Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Peter MacDonald's Rambo III (1988).

Having parodied Sylvester Stallone, Sheen plays it straight in Deran Serafian's Terminal Velocity (1994), in which Olympic gymnast-turned-skydiver Ditch Brodie finds himself being pursued by Russian mobsters after Chris Morrow (Nastassja Kinski) dies in an accident at his jump school. Or does she...? If this plot seems relishably far-fetched in places, wait until you see John Woo's Broken Arrow (1996), which has Captain Riley Hale (Christian Slater) track down co-pilot Major Vic Deakins (John Travolta) after he causes a plane crash in a bid to steal two unarmed nuclear weapons.

Travolta and Woo would have more plane-themed fun when Nicolas Cage joins them for an airport shootout in the 1997 gem, Face/Off. This is the joy of Cinema Paradiso. One good film always leads to another and they arrive through your letterbox without you even having to leave your sofa. So, what are you waiting for? Get clicking.

Perhaps you're waiting to hear about Stuart Baird's Executive Decision, which sees flight attendant Jean (Halle Berry) keep her composure after terrorists take over her Oceanic Airlines flight to Greece and a special ops team led by Dr David Grant (Kurt Russell) and Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis (Steven Seagal) is smuggled aboard mid-flight in order to regain control of the 747. Or maybe you'd rather watch Vietnam vet-turned-crop duster Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and fighter pilot president Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) blitz Area 51 to stem an alien invasion in Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (both 1996) ?

A still from Seal Team Eight: Behind Enemy Lines (2014)
A still from Seal Team Eight: Behind Enemy Lines (2014)

A reconnaissance mission during the Bosnian War turns into a nightmare for Navy Pilot Chris 'Longhorn' Burnett (Owen Wilson) in John Moore's Behind Enemy Lines (2001), as he has to wait for Rear Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman) to send a rescue party after he is shot by the Serbs he spots burying the victims of a war crime. Such was the success of this tense saga that it was followed by James Dodson's Behind Enemy Lines II: Axis of Evil (2006), Tim Matheson's Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia (2009) and Roel Reiné's SEAL Team 8: Behind Enemy Lines (2014).

The key to aerial adventure movies in this period was a high-concept plot that skirted the bounds of plausibility. Take Michael Keusch's Flight of Fury (2007), which centres on John Sands (Steven Seagal), a pilot who once had his memory chemically erased by the US Air Force and is now required to fly to northern Afghanistan to recover the X-77 stealth bomber stolen by corrupt flier, Captain Ratcher (Steve Toussaint). Rob Cohen went a step too far, however, in tasking fighter pilots Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas), Kara Wade (Jessica Biel) and Henry Purcell (Jamie Foxx) to develop a new fighter bomber in Stealth (2005), as this $135 million skirmish with Russia and North Korea took only $79 million at the global box office, making it one of the biggest loss-makers in cinema history.

This should make it capnip to Cinema Paradiso users, who can choose between high-quality DVD and Blu-ray versions. Available in the same formats is Mamoru Oshii's The Sky Crawlers (2008), an anime aerial adventure that brings Hiroshi Mori's acclaimed manga series to thrilling life to show how mega-corporations hire fighter pilots (who have been genetically engineered to remain youthful) to resolve their issues. The feuding entities are the Krees and the shape-shifting Skrulls at the start of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Captain Marvel (2019). But this Marvel origins story takes us back to Los Angeles to show how Starforce member Vers was a USAF pilot named Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), who was presumed dead in the late 1980s during the Project Pegasus tests on a light-speed engine.

While it's refreshing finally to turn the focus on some 'flygirls', it's almost inevitable that we conclude by making our way back to Tom Cruise, as he plays Barry Seal in Doug Liman's fact-based romp. American Made (2017). A former TWA pilot who flew missions for the CIA before shifting cocaine for a Medellin cartel, Seal becomes an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. This was the second collaboration between Liman and Cruise after Edge of Tomorrow (2014), in which Heathrow Airport becomes a base fighting the alien invaders known as the Mimics. Guess who wins?

A still from Edge of Tomorrow (2014) With Tom Cruise And Emily Blunt
A still from Edge of Tomorrow (2014) With Tom Cruise And Emily Blunt
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  • Wings (1927)

    2h 24min

    William A. Wellman landed this tale of Great War aerial heroics because he was the only director in Hollywood with combat flying experience. Screenwriter John Monk Saunders and star Richard Arlen were also veterans. But such was Paramount's determination to ensure that the silent action was entirely authentic that it recruited 300 pilots for the flying sequences. The studio's reward was the inaugural Academy Award for Best ('Outstanding') Picture.

  • Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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    1h 56min

    Beloved of aviation enthusiasts for cinematographer Joseph Walker's framing of the vintage aircraft plying the routes over the Andes, this is a revered example of Howard Hawks's fascination with 'men at work'. Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth are in prominent support, but the focus falls on Cary Grant and Richard Barthelmess, as they risk their necks to get the mail through.

  • They Flew Alone (1942) aka: Wings and the Woman

    1h 35min

    Actor Miles Malleson wrote this biopic of Amy Johnson as a boost to the nation's morale after she perished delivering a plane while serving with the Air Transport Auxiliary. As ever, director Herbert Wilcox iconises wife Anna Neagle, but she capably conveys Johnson's skill and pluck, as she becomes the first woman to fly solo to Australia and break the record for a lone flight to South Africa.

  • The Dam Busters (1955)

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    2h 0min

    Based on Paul Brickhill's bestseller and the memoirs of Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd), this is the most famous British film about aerial combat during the Second World War. Driven by Eric Coates rousing march, the action chronicles Operation Chastise, in which the Eder, Möhne and Sorpe dams were targeted by Lancaster bombers armed with the bouncing bombs devised by Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave).

  • Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)

    2h 12min

    RAF veteran Ken Annakin persuaded movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck to make an all-star extravaganza about the early days of aviation while directing his segment of the D-Day epic, The Longest Day (1962). With its Ron Goodwin theme and Ronald Searle cartoon credits, the picture opens with Red Skelton fronting a glorious pastiche prologue that charts humankind's fascination with flight.

  • Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

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    2h 16min

    Unable to raise finance for personal projects and embarrassed after being fired from this reconstruction of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, director Akira Kurosawa attempted suicide. Fortunately, he survived and went on to make several memorable features, as did replacements Toshio Masuda and Kenju Fukasaku, who has 25 films available for rent via Cinema Paradiso, including New Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1974).

  • Airplane! (1980)

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    1h 24min

    Wherever you look in this disaster spoof, there's a classic gag. Whether it's Leslie Nielsen's doctor taking offence at being called Shirley, washed-up pilot Robert Hays reliving his Saturday Night Fever routine with stewardess Julie Hagerty, tower supervisor Lloyd Bridges battling his countless addictions or Otto the inflatable autopilot enjoying a brief encounter, you are guaranteed to laugh. A lot.

    Director:
    Jim Abrahams
    Cast:
    Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen
    Genre:
    Comedy
    Formats:
  • Top Gun (1986)

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    1h 45min

    Inspired by Ehud Yonay's California magazine article, this is a classic example of a movie becoming a hit by word of mouth after the critics had been unimpressed. Tom Cruise's romance with instructor Kelly McGillis featured heavily in the video for Berlin's Oscar-winning chart topper, 'Take My Breath Away'. But it was the dynamic footage of the Screaming Eagles F-14s that thrilled audiences to the tune of $352.8 million.

  • Flight (2012)

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    2h 13min

    Loosely based on the fate of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, this was Robert Zemeckis's first live-action film since Cast Away (2000), which also involved a plane crash. Both screenwriter John Gatins and Denzel Washington received Oscar nominations, with the latter excelling as the fast-living pilot who is forced to battle for his reputation after his heroics are undermined by the findings of a post-flight blood test.

  • Sully (2016) aka: Sully: Miracle on the Hudson

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    1h 32min

    Drawing on Chesley Sullenberger's autobiography, Highest Duty, Clint Eastwood's biopic aroused controversy by showing how the National Transportation Safety Board had questioned Sully's decision to land a plane containing 165 souls on the Hudson River because he believed the damaged engines would not reach either of the two nearest airports. The ever-reliable Tom Hanks is ably supported by Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeff Skiles.