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James' Favorite Aviation Films

The Battle of Britain
Starring Robert Shaw, Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine, Ian McShane, Curt Jergens, Laurence Olivier, Susannah York. IMO the best aviation movie ever made, despite the intrusive soap-opera subplot between Plummer and York. The aircraft recreations and aerial sequences are excellent. Any model work, including all crashes and most aerial explosions were done with 1/2 scale radio-controlled models. Aircraft blown up on the ground were 1/1 scale, some even could be taxied about under their own power. This movie is reponsible for rescuing almost all of the "Bf-109s" and "He-111s" as well as many of the Spitfires that are still flying from the scrap heap. The use of German, Polish, and French actors speaking their native languages (with subtitles), along with the portrayal of the Germans as human beings is noteworthy. The latest video release has scenes that were edited out of TV and cable releases, along with expanded subtitling. The rousing martial score is also a plus--check out the CD of the original score, which contains themes that were not used in the movie. Battle of Britain was finally released on DVD in the spring of 2003, and in widescreen, at quite good quality. But, oddly, they changed the music and Winston Churchill quote at the end, which has baffled and annoyed many longtime fans. I ended up purchasing the Region 2 version of the film, which is closer to the original I remember, but still has some differences.
Strategic Air Command
Starring Jimmy Stewart, June Allyson, Barry Sullivan. B-36s and B-47s and a good story about the early days of SAC. Excellent miniatures work and air-to air cinematography. For some reason the VHS version has some bad color shifts in several scenes; makes one wish for a widescreen, restored DVD version. However, the widescreen version that shows on Turner Classic Movies is a good, clean copy in widescreen. I had a crush on June Allyson for years after seeing her in old movies with Jimmy Stewart...
Starring Charleton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson. More silly soap-opera subplots detract from a fairly close-to-historical base story, but lots of good airplane footage, some from other films including Tora! Tora! Tora! Originally this film was, like the potboiler disaster movie Earthquake!, released in "Sensurround," which gave it a very realistic battle feel.
Tora! Tora! Tora!
Starring Toshio Masuda, Martin Balsam, Kinji Fukasuku, Jason Robards, Joseph Cotton. Pearl Harbor in all its infamy. The Japanese were speaking Japanese and were mostly depicted as human beings. Responsible for all of the "Val," "Kate," and "Zero" replicas seen on TV and movies and at airshows. They are all modifications of American-made WWII-ers trainers. Great action sequences that show up in many other later WWII films. Looks stunning on widescreen DVD.
633 Squadron
Starring Cliff Robertson, George Chakiris, Maria Perschy, Harry Andrews. Mosquitoes in Action! Lots of low-level flying as well as fair model work. Supposedly several real Mossies were destroyed during the making of this film. Now out on DVD.
The Rocketeer
Starring Bill Campbell, Timothy Dalton, Alan Arkin, Jennifer Connolly. Gee Bees forever! Highly underrated Disney adventure movie--the opening scene captures the Magic of flying so well! Also contains a cool autogyro sequence and of course the famous flaming zeppelin climax. A shame Disney didn't see fit to release a better print; all the great scenes are marred by a horrible transfer with many pixilations and too many grainy frames. Even a DVD player that upconverts can't help this one. Get on the ball, Disney!
Top Gun
Starring Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, Kelly McGillis. F-14s whooping up on "MiGs" (really Top Gun F-5s painted black). OK, if somewhat non-realistic story with many good flying sequences, again ruined by romantic subplot. McGillis should have been ditched. A lot of stock footage out-takes ended up being used in the pilot of the television series JAG.
Memphis Belle
I prefer the wartime documentary, but the movie (with Matthew Modine) is okay—it's a shame they chose to fictionalize so many of the crew. The real people were just as interesting. It is good to see so many B-17s in the air together.
The Right Stuff
Starring Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Lance Henrickson. Okay, so it's not quite historically accurate and the occasional bathroom humor is questionable—this makes you feel good about the old days of the space program. Good feel for the "fighter jock" attitude; a couple of good airplane scenes and a good carrier landing. A widescreen DVD was released several years ago (in fact it was our first DVD purchase), but in the summer of 2003 a "special edition" version became available, complete with interviews, commentary, and documentaries, and a marginally better print.
Apollo 13
Starring Tom Hanks, Gary Sinese, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris. Not a lot of airplanes, but one heck of a movie. 'Nuff said.

Sadly, a waste of time:

Pearl Harbor
With the state of CGI as it was when this film was made, it should have been stunning, although there is nothing like the use of an authentic aircraft in a period movie. But this film was laughable: substandard actors in an unbelievable romantic plot (one guy serves in the Battle of Britain, then gets transferred to Pearl Harbor, just coincidentally to be with his best friend and the woman he loves?), modern ships and aircraft shown among the historical ones, and, as my wife screamed when she first saw this, they changed FDR's famous "Day of Infamy" speech. The effects of the attack upon the hospital were one of the few things that looked good in this terrible film. For those swooning over Ben Affleck and the other guy only. Trash.


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