Airplane movies are a classic genre. Man has always wanted to fly, and that fascination with the air comes through in the cinema. A top-notch airplane movie is a combination of characters and story with the drama of being high in the air.
Historical Airplane Movies
Walter J. Boyne of “Aviation History” magazine created a list of the top airplane movies based on the quality of the plot and lack of glaring aviation inaccuracies. The following three movies receive the highest accolades according to his criteria.
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Gregory Peck as a tough general takes command of a bomber pilot unit, converting their low morale into one befitting an elite fighting unit once more. The film stands as a classic among airplane movies because the use of extensive, authentic combat footage makes its flight scenes ultra-realistic.
Winner of the first-ever “Best Picture” Oscar, the movie stars Clara Bow and Charles “Buddy” Rogers as a World War I fighter pilot. A pilot in real life, Rogers mans the plane in several scenes. William Wellman, a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps, brings his love of aviation to the big screen.
Strategic Air Command (1955)
Jimmy Stewart, a World War II bomber pilot in real life, gives an award-winning performance as a professional baseball player called to active duty by the Unites States Air Force. Aviation aficionados treasure the film for its cinematography with its sweeping aerial shots of the Boeing B-47 and Convair B-36.
Popular Airplane Movies
When you think of airplane movies, some films just come up first. The following films made numerous “best” lists including from “Time,” IMDb and Sky Scanner.
The Aviator (2004)
Director Martin Scorsese’s film centers on the life of director and aviator Howard Hughes. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes, the film notably documents Hughes’ obsession with creating the largest flying machine in the world, The Spruce Goose.
Hell’s Angels (1930)
Howard Hughes’ obsession pays off for viewers in his determination to recreate the most authentic and dramatic World War I dogfight possible. Viewers laud the thrilling aerial footage that pilots declare lifelike. Dozens of films and documentaries have given Hughes the ultimate flattery – by incorporating his work into their own.
Air Force One (1997)
Noted at the time for its accurate portrayal of the United States President’s private plane, viewers get a peek at the security measures and format of the country’s most important plane. The president, played by Harrison Ford, faces off with Gary Oldman’s lead terrorist in the climactic scenes.
Controversial Airplane Movies
Movies on the controversial list are those found both on “best” and “worst” lists. These airplane movies are so strong you either love them or hate them.
Pearl Harbor (2001)
IMBd users either place the film on their “best” list or “worst” – they rarely ignore it. Boyne declares “Pearl Harbor” “the worst aviation film ever made.” Yet the film deserves its space on the Top-Ten list if only because of the daredevil flight stunts that viewers always remember.
Memphis Belle (1990)
A fictionalized remake of William Wyler’s 1943 documentary, people question if it lives up to its predecessor. Starring Matthew Modine and Harry Connick Jr. in his big screen debut, the 1990 film chronicles the 25th, and last, mission of the World War II American B-17 bomber named Memphis Belle.
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Even its strongest proponents don’t deny that the premise of dozens of venomous snakes slithering around an airplane is ridiculous. However, the ridiculous premise allows for slapstick and deadpan comedy among a cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson and Julianna Marguiles. The added fillip of venomous snakes plaguing already harried passengers adds a bit of thrill to this aviation movie.
Top Airplane Movie
One film, which may seem to be missing from the above lists, is in fact noteworthy enough to merit its own list. “Top Gun,” the 1986 film that made Tom Cruise a star, makes Time’s, Sky Scanner’s and IMBd’s top lists. Filled with love, bravado and some impressive dog fighting scenes, the film documents how a group of cocky pilots endure the loss of one of their own in a tragic flying accident. “Top Gun” is still one of the most popular airplane movies ever.
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Alex Faubel enjoys writing about entertaining topics related to aviation, business and technology in career-focused education programs.