It took George Lucas 24 years to get Red Tails off the ground, pretty ironic for a film about World War II flyboys. And it's nothing short of remarkable that the filmmaker who gave the industry some of its biggest successes, from Star Wars to Indiana Jones, couldn't drum up interest for a film with a veritable squadron of exciting action set pieces, including some of the coolest aerial dogfights around. Lucas has gone on record suggesting that Hollywood was frightened of a motion picture filled with exclusively black leading men, since Red Tails tells the story of World War II's fabled Tuskegee Airmen, but maybe the prospect of death-defying mid-air action sequences also made Hollywood paranoid, since when you think about it, there really haven't been that many classic films that have managed to capture the majesty of mid-air combat in all its high-flying glory. In the days before CGI it was simply a dangerous proposition, and only a few have managed to get it right.
So before you check out Red Tails on DVD and Blu-ray on May 22, take a look back at a handful of classic dogfight movies to get your blood pumping. Get ready to grip your sticks…
Hell's Angels (dir. Howard Hughes, 1930)
Directed by Howard Hughes, yes that Howard Hughes, Hell's Angels was the original out of control movie production. Overbudget, overschedule and ultimately overwrought, the World War I flying film about two brothers (James Hall and Ben Lyon) fighting for England and for the affections of a young woman (a then-unknown Jean Harlow) features some amazing aerial stuntwork, some of which was so dangerous that Hughes himself was forced to do it himself. He crashed, but at least they got the shot. Martin Scorsese's excellent Oscar-winning biography of Howard Hughes, The Aviator, spent a large amount of time dramatizing the already dramatic production of Hell's Angels, making it impossible not to appreciate the enormous effort went into making the blockbuster.
Twelve O'Clock High (dir. Henry King, 1949)
Gregory Peck stars as Brigadier General Frank Savage, who is given the task of whipping a "hard luck" bomber unit back into shape after the psychological effects of World War II had beaten them down. It seems strange today, but Twelve O'Clock High is actually famous as one of the first motion pictures to deal with the psychological effects of warfare, and is considered by some Air Force pilots to be among the most accurate depictions of their efforts. The aerial combat is top notch, especially for the day.
Star Wars (dir. George Lucas, 1977)
Does it count as aerial combat if it's in space? We think so, especially since space combat doesn't actually exist and all the conventions we use to convey it on film are taken from actual dogfights. Case in point, two of the centerpiece action sequences from George Lucas's classic original (original) Star Wars, in which The Millenium Falcon evades those nasty TIE fighers and of course the spectacular finale, featuring the treacherous and daring attack on the Death Star. Thanks to ignoring little facts like "there's no sound in space" and "there's no explosions in space," Lucas gets away with some spectacular action sequences in this, one of the most successful, influential and just plain best films of all time. Rest in peace, Porkins…
Top Gun (dir. Tony Scott, 1986)
The dogfight movie everyone probably knows best, Top Gun was a runaway success upon its release, and remains so beloved that Hollywood is currently considering a sequel over 25 years after the fact, when remakes are more the rage. Tom Cruise stars as a hotshot flyboy competing at a Navy training school, but while he's clearly got the talent, performing aerial maneuvers previously thought impossible, he doesn't have the discipline necessary to be an effective soldier. The final dogfight with Russian MiGs tests not only his talents but also his character, and under the macho eye of director Tony Scott, the finale is among the most thrilling mid-air action sequences yet filmed. Looking back at it today, Top Gun is melodramatic as all hell, but it's still damned cool.
The Memphis Belle (dir. Michael Caton-Jones, 1990)
The real-life Memphis Belle was one of the most celebrated aircraft in World War II, and the subject of an already great 1944 documentary by William Wyler, The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. Michael Caton-Jones's 1990 version is a little whitebread in comparison to the real thing, but it's still ripsnorting adventure with a great cast, including Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Billy Zane, Sean Astin and John Lithgow. The Memphis Belle has defied the odds by completing 24 successful bombing runs in World War II, and has become the subject of a propaganda campaign lauding its impending 25th, but the crew are unaware that their last mission will be the most harrowing yet. A good, old-fashioned adventure yarn despite its flaws.
Full Disclosure: This article has been sponsored by 20th Century Fox.