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Posted: September 30, 2017

Ten Flyer Flicks worth watching

By Elinor Florence

I thought you might enjoy seeing my list of 10 wartime aviation movies.

Before going any farther, I will state the obvious. Most wartime movies focus on the Americans, because the global movie industry headquarters are in Hollywood. I expect we would see a different version of history if the movie moguls lived in Vancouver, or Sydney, or Berlin. The Canadian contribution, as usual, has been sadly overlooked in the movies.

1) Memphis Belle, 1990: Starring Matthew Modine, this dramatic film about an American bomber crew’s last mission over Germany will have you on the edge of your seat. The movie has been criticized for being overly sentimental and cheesy, but it is nevertheless tremendously exciting and my all-time favourite wartime flick. It’s based on a true story, and the real Memphis Belle is currently being restored.
2) The Dam Busters, 1955: This is a British story through and through, and the old 1955 black and white classic with Michael Redgrave is well worth watching. Rumours abound about a remake by Hobbit producer Peter Jackson, but it hasn’t happened yet. Colour film and special effects would do wonders for this jaw-dropping story of the Royal Air Force’s successful 1943 raid on three German dams. Only two dambusters are still living, one of them in England. The Canadian guy is Fred Sutherland and he still lives in his own home in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta.
3) Battle of Britain, 1969: This film with an all-star cast including Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier and Christopher Plummer (playing a Canadian, like himself) endeavoured to be an accurate account of the 1940 Battle of Britain, when the Royal Air Force soundly defeated the German Luftwaffe and forced Hitler to cancel his plans to invade Britain. The film is notable for its spectacular flying sequences.
4) Twelve O’Clock High, 1949: The American Eighth Air Force bomber group commander Gregory Peck is pushed to the limit as he sends his men to certain death over the skies of Germany. At one point he tells them it will be easier to deal with the fear if you “consider yourselves already dead.”
5) Tuskegee Airmen, 1995: This TV movie was based on the true story about a group of African American pilots who overcame racial oppression to become one of the finest fighter groups in the U.S. Starring Laurence Fishburne, this isn’t your usual wartime fare, but it has some good flying scenes.
6) Reach for the Sky, 1956: This is a documentary film about Douglas Bader, based on a 1954 biography of the same name by author Paul Brickhill. The film stars Kenneth More and it was named the Best British Film of 1956. Despite losing both legs in an air crash in 1931, Bader became a flying ace with the Royal Air Force in World War Two. Truth is always more dramatic than fiction!
7) Catch 22, 1970: Purists will object to my including this black comedy from the book by Joseph Heller, more realistic than most wartime propaganda movies. An American pilot played by Alan Arkin tries to convince his commanding officer that he’s crazy, so he doesn’t have to fly any more raids over Germany. The character Klinger in the old TV show Mash was supposedly based on him.
8) Mrs. Miniver, 1942: This is an aviation movie only because it shows how civilians on the ground coped with being bombed. Made during the height of the war when victory was still uncertain, this black-and-white classic features Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson as an upper-crust couple struggling through the Battle of Britain. It won the Best Picture Oscar in 1942.

The last two movies are a nod to my Canadian roots, although both were made by American movie companies.

9) Captains of the Clouds, 1942: James Cagney stars in his first colour movie, about an American bush pilot who joins the Royal Canadian Air Force for fun, but finds himself having to prove his worth when he goes to war. (In fairness, the RCAF had plenty of American volunteers, whose contribution has been largely overlooked by both countries.)
10) For the Moment, 1996: This movie was filmed at the former British Commonwealth Air Training Base in Brandon, Manitoba, which is now an excellent aviation museum. It tells the story of rookie flyers from around the world who trained in this country. Altogether Canada trained 130,000 flyers during World War Two. In this movie, Russell Crowe plays a trainee with the Royal Australian Air Force who falls in love with a local girl who is unfortunately already married, not an uncommon scenario in those days. It was one of his very first movie roles.

I know this list is far from complete, and you will have many other suggestions. What’s your favourite flyer flick?

Elinor Florence

– Career journalist and bestselling author Elinor Florence of Invermere has written two wartime books. Her novel Bird’s Eye View tells the story of an idealistic Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the Royal Canadian Air Force and becomes an interpreter of aerial photographs. My Favourite Veterans is a non-fiction collection of interviews whose stories appeared previously on e-KNOW, including Cranbrook’s own Bud Abbott.

Elinor’s new novel Wildwood, about pioneer life in the Peace River, Alberta region, will appear in February 2018. It is available for pre-order now at a reduced price on Amazon. For more information about all three books, visit Elinor’s website at or call her at 250-342-1621.

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