There are many aspects that led to Top Gun: Maverick becoming a Best Picture contender at the Oscars, but it cannot be denied that it is one of the best movies about aerial warfare. Seeing Tom Cruise’s Maverick and the other characters engaged in thrilling midair battles is unlike most any other action sequences in movies. Strangely enough, these types of combat movies seem to be rarer than others, however, there are still enough examples of movies that can be named as the best movies about aerial combat.
Understandably, most movies in this limited genre deal with wartime battles and even draw from real events. These movies stretch back to the earliest days of the moviemaking industry to as recent as 2022’s Top Gun Maverick. Given such a wide time period covered in the genre, audiences can see a lot of different techniques used for the aerial combat sequence from shocking practical effects to stock footage to CGI. The best movies about aerial warfare have also attracted a variety of talented directors at one time or another including Tony Scott and Christopher Nolan. If fans are in the mood for more high-flying action, there are some other great aerial warfare movies to watch.
12. Memphis Belle (1990)
Based on the true story of the 25th and last outing of the titular American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, Memphis Belle provides a suitably grounded account of a daring and dangerous World War 2 mission. The movie seems to be working off the popularity of Top Gun with a similar cast of young ’80s actors, which includes Matthew Modine, Sean Astin, and Billy Zane. Whilst not as thrilling as modern action movies, the aerial combat scenes are certainly gripping with the feel that the smallest error in the skies can mean death.
11. The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)
As documented as World War II is, it is always interesting to see movies explore some little-known aspect of the war as done in The Tuskegee Airmen. The made-for-television movie is the true story of a group of Black pilots who overcame racism and injustice within their own military to form one of the finest aerial fighter squadrons in the war. The movie features an all-star cast led by Laurence Fishburne and the TV film won three Emmy Awards as well as a Peabody.
10. The Battle Of Britain (1969)
Long before Michael Caine made a cameo in Dunkirk, he led another one of the best movies about aerial combat in The Battle of Britain. The movie takes place during the early days of World War II when Germany looked as though it might bomb England into submission.
One important factor standing in the way of Adolf Hitler’s victory was the Royal Air Force. Being vastly outnumbered, these brave pilots continuously took to the skies to fight back the German Luftwaffe and ensure their country stayed in the fight. Each dogfight in the movie is packed with desperation as the entire war seems to be on the line. Along with Caine, the movie also features a strong supporting cast that includes Christopher Plummer, Ian McShane, and Robert Shaw.
9. Hell’s Angels (1930)
Depicted in the Martin Scorsese true Hollywood story The Aviator, Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels was a ground-breaking action movie. Whilst the movie takes a while to get going, setting up the relationship between the two central brothers, Roy and Monte Rutledge (both pilots in the British Royal Flying Corps), its aerial combat scenes are worth the wait.
In addition to the movie’s surprisingly frank approach to sexuality for the time, it’s the final dogfight scenes that see the brothers taking on a German squadron led by the infamous Red Baron that won the most acclaim. More than 70 pilots were used for the dangerous stunts, including Hughes himself, and it reportedly resulted in three pilots dying during filming.
8. Devotion (2022)
Given the amazing practical stunts of Top Gun: Maverick‘s flying scenes, it stands to reason any other aerial warfare movie in 2022 would pale in comparison. However, while Devotion was overlooked, it remains a solid entry in the genre. Jonathan Majors shines in this biopic of Jesse Brown – the first African-American pilot to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program who went on to become a highly decorated wingman – and his friendship with fellow pilot Tom Hudner (Top Gun: Maverick‘s Glen Powell). Devotion is far from a letdown by its aerial combat, though the biggest takeaway will doubtless be the relationship between its leading men.
7. Top Gun (1986)
While it’s clear Top Gun: Maverick surpasses the original among the best movies about aerial warfare, there is no denying the fun of the nostalgic original. Top Gun introduces the world to Tom Cruise’s hotshot pilot who is just the right mix of skill and recklessness. Much like the sequel, Top Gun spends much of its aerial sequences focused on the intense training at the TOPGUN academy and also builds to a final mission with some thrilling dogfight scenes and heroic maneuvers. The movie helped make Tom Cruise a genuine Hollywood leading man and won an Oscar, Grammy, and Golden Globe.
6. Wings (1927)
The fact that Wings is still often considered to have some of the best aerial dogfight scenes in cinema nearly a century after its release is a testament to a movie that was a long way ahead of its time. William A. Wellman’s World War 1 movie balances romance and drama with an unforgettable climax that sees the main characters taking part in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel.
Silent movies can be difficult to watch in the 21st Century, but the battle is a cinematic feat on an almost absurd scale that hasn’t aged badly at all. The movie is also notable for winning the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture as a recognition of the filmmaking feat it accomplished to this day.
5. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
In the history of American war movies, Twelve O’Clock High stands out as one of the very finest examples to be based on aerial warfare. The movie remains relevant years later, even influencing Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Centered on the United States Army’s Eighth Air Force and their bombing missions in Europe during the early days of the Second World War, the movie focuses less on aerial combat and more on presenting a gripping portrayal of the psychological impact of war.
In order to pull that off, there’s a degree of realism to Twelve O’Clock High that impressed critics, and that was particularly true in the Oscar-winning performance of Dean Jagger in a supporting role. It also helps add plenty of weight to all the tense drama that does take place in the skies.
4. The Dam Busters (1955)
Like 12 O’Clock High, The Dam Busters is another older war movie to shape Star Wars as it inspired Star Wars‘ Death Star trench run. The British movie tells the true story of the Bouncing Bomb’s creation and its use by the RAF to destroy dams in Nazi Germany. Whilst that means much of the movie takes place on the ground, following Barnes Wallis’s attempts to convince the government to use his idea and the creation of the iconic bomber squadron, it’s at its best when it’s in the air. The precision and high intensity of the missions on hand also feel reminiscent of the climax of Top Gun: Maverick.
3. Dunkirk (2017)
While not as focused on the pilots as some of the other best movies about aerial warfare, Dunkirk pulls off these scenes impressively. Christopher Nolan uses a somewhat confusing approach to tell the rescue mission of British soldiers from Dunkirk during World War II. This Best Picture nominee focuses on the soldiers on the beach and the rescue boats on the water, but one-third of the movie follows Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as pilots flying across to the French beach to provide backup for the stranded soldiers. Nolan puts the audience in the cockpits of these planes for the tense dogfights with Hardy especially making for a reserved hero of the skies.
2. Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
It’s rare for a very belated sequel to be even reasonably good, let alone better than the original, but critics and audiences embraced the nostalgic joy of Top Gun: Maverick in a big way. Cruise’s performance was excellent and themes of friendship and trying to keep up in a changing world resonated. With a refined plot and recognizable characters, all the movie needed to do was provide some incredible spectacles with its scenes of aerial combat, and it delivered that with ease. The film grossed over $1 billion (via Box Office Mojo) and earned six Oscar nods, including for Best Picture.
1. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Though Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor was not viewed warmly as an authentic war movie, audiences can find a much better telling of the pivotal World War II moment in Tora! Tora! Tora!. The movie offers rich historical context and an intense build-up as it looks at the lead-up to the December 1941 attack from both the American and Japanese perspectives. The historically accurate war movie was up for five Oscars and depicts the failed relationship between the nations and the intelligence battle before the war in a riveting that builds to the epic attack sequence that will still thrill audiences after so many years.
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