WWII Film Guide: Air Warfare

*Last Updated: 1/1/2024
*This post is part of a film guide on World War II. Click here for the main page
*For more context on the process behind this guide, click here for an introduction

Introduction: The best air warfare films are able to tell memorable war stories that dramatize the unique psychological and sociological trials of air combat through the visual spectacle that is unique to the wonder of flight. That particular combination is pretty elusive to the films on this list as most find themselves with only one of those features...if they are lucky. In fact, I think this is a weaker category for a couple reasons. First, it's always difficult to create good war stories that stand out from the pack - this category is not immune to that hurdle. Second, this category struggles in that it faces a technological barrier that other war films don't. Before the era of good CGI, it was very difficult and expensive to pull off convincing "era-accurate" aerial warfare. Once we finally got to an era this could make use of computer graphics in this area, say the 2000's and later, the hunger for aerial WWII films in audiences had largely gone out. It's not all negative however, there are some strong films in this category and I think they've been identified and clarified below.

It is in World War II when aerial combat (often termed aerial superiority) became one of the most important (some would argue the most important) factors in determining victory in a war. Yes, it was increasingly important near the end of World War I, but they just didn't have the technological advancements to make the sky the terror it became in WWII. The airplane took on a wide variety of roles in the second world war, but the two most common portrayals in film is in aerial dogfights between fighters and in bombing runs. Each of these roles had unique trials and struggles for their pilots and crews not experienced by other types of service. 

Before going further, I think it's important to restate that I'm not a World War II expert, nor am I an expert on military planes. I know enough to be able to recognize the major differences between the legendary planes that flew in WWII, but I couldn't identify the specifics. I did however get to see many of the planes in these movies when I visited the National Museum of the United States Airforce. It's like the Louvre for military aircraft. 
P-51 Mustang - As seen in films like Red Tails and Empire of the Sun

The Memphis Belle - the famous B-17 bomber that survived its full run of 25 flights!

If you are a fan of seeing aircraft in person, this is for you. For film these films tough, what concerned me most is this, "What was it like to be a bomber/fighter pilot?" Yes, a certain amount of technical details are important here, but I'm interested much more in the visceral experience of aerial combat and the psychological/sociological effects it had. I'll try my best to steer you towards the ones I think are worth your time. 

In order to get you to the thing most of you came for, "What's the best in this genre? I've put my recommendations for you below. Following that, if you'd like to learn more about the 15 films in this section, then you can find each film in this category organized by release date (oldest to newest) with a brief commentary, a link to its IMDB page, and my grade.

The Top Shelf: Best in this category belongs to...
  • Best Bomber Story - Command Decision (1949) / Twelve O'Clock High (1949): The romance of aerial warfare is typically associated with fighter planes. With bomber planes, it's more about devilish statistics. Commanders and bomber crews know that a certain percentage of men will never return from their run. The deeper the target into Germany, the greater chance they'll never make it home. In this sense, the best bomber films highlight the morbid dice rolling from command to crew that takes place. There's no other films that examine leadership and the psychological toll bombing runs take on there air crews than these. I've read Twelve O'Clock High is still used in Air Force and Navy schools to this day to discuss leadership. Watch it with a group and discuss it afterwards.
  • Best Dogfight Story - Battle of Britain (1969):  If aerial action is what you are seeking, the best overall film about aerial combat is 1969's Battle of Britain. While it doesn't have the scope and detail of later CGI films, it's easily the best film about what is was like to live, fly, and die as a fighter pilot. Lots of effort went into using physical planes, and not relying on miniatures, and recreating the historical events. Between these two films - you're experiencing the best of bombers and fighters.

The Deep Dive: For those wanting a broader and richer journey...
  • Specialized Aerial Bombing Stories - The Malta Story (1953) / The Dam Busters (1955) / 633 Squadron (1964): If you are interested to delve deeper into the nuance and history of the category I have two major suggestions for viewing. First, I recommend a triple billing of The Dam BustersThe Malta Story, and 633 Squadron. Each film here is decent and tells a slightly different story about bombing runs.
  • CGI Aerial Spectacles: Red Tails (2012) / Midway (2019): Finally, a double feature of Midway and Red Tails would give you a strong dose of the best in CGI dogfight sequences. Careful though, it will also be a double dose of cheesy and sentimental filmmaking too!
Individual Film Commentary (Oldest to Newest)
  • A+ = All-time Classic
  • A   = Excellent Film
  • A-  = Excellent Film, but some minor faults
  • B+ = Very Good film
  • B   = Good Film
  • B-  = Good Film, but some key faults
  • C+ = Average with some redeeming qualities, but major faults
  • C   = Mediocre Film
  • C-  = Poor Film
  • D+ = Bad Film
  • I don't usually rate anything lower

1. Air Force (1943) IMDB
- Directed by the legend Howard Hawks and produced by the legend Hal B. Wallis, this Oscar nominated film was made in 1943. It's a unique year to make a film about Pacific war events; by that time the war had turned in favor of the Americans but the real slog and price of island hopping was still yet to come. The film they made tells the story of the "Mary Ann" B-17 bomber crew that flew into Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 1941...yes, the day the Japanese attacked. From there they are shipped off to Philippines, but must stop off at Wake Island to refuel. Again, they land at an airfield on fire after attacks from the Japanese. At this point, we are an hour (halfway) into the film and it's essentially been flying from point a to point b to point c, with conversations along the way. I suppose this structure could work in 1943 when audiences were eager to see recent history on screen, but let's be honest - the first half of a movie being basically a crew flying from air base to air base is a studio making a propaganda war film as cheaply as possible. It allows for a lot of dialogue, but none of the dialogue is that interesting. I kind of felt like Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, "Ummm, you do intend to have war in your war movie right?" Thankfully the last 45 minutes or so of the film eventually does pick up the pace and give the audience a lot of action - so much that it seems they must have spent their entire budget on it. However, the action sequences are painfully generic, obviously inaccurate at times (even for a non-expert like me), and lacking a general "battle" strategy and commonsense. The finale bombing sequence of a Japanese convoy looks pretty darn great for the time and was appropriately nominated for visual effects at the Academy Awards - I just wish it all made more sense and felt better connected to the actual storyline. Surprised this was also nominated for writing - it's one of the more overrated (aside from the era special effects) war films I've seen for this project. GRADE: C- 

2. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1945) IMDB
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American military drafted up plans of a revenge strike on the Japanese capitol - Tokyo, Japan. Captain Jimmy Doolittle was put in charge and began training B-25 bomber groups at Eglin Air Force Base for the risky and difficult task of taking off from aircraft carriers. The eventual bombing would be known as the Doolittle Raid. Three other films about the raid were made during the war years: Destination Tokyo (1943), The Purple Heart (1944), and Bombardier (1943). I chose to view this film as a representative of the group (I had to draw the line somewhere!) since this film is the most accurate and highly rated of the group. It's mostly a straight forward narrative from plan conception, to training, to preparation, and then the raid. The characters are not all that interesting and some are played as one-dimensional stereotypes that really grate: like the Texas loving Manch and the country bumpkin from Billings. This film is very similar in construction to something like 1955's The Dam Busters, but rather than construct the film as a serious of obstacles requiring genius and skill to overcome (how do we get heavy bombers off a carrier?) like The Dam Busters did for their bouncing bombs, this film just solves the problems off screen and we assume the leaders have figured it out. It makes for a very uninteresting story that just kind of unfolds without much conflict, however accurate it is. That's not why you watch this film though is it? When it comes to the actual raid (the takeoff, the flight, bombing, and landing in China) this film shines. There's practically no music, just the sound effects, and excellent art direction and visual effects. It's easily the highlight of the film. After one of the bombers crash lands, the last 40 or so minutes follows their journey in China to evade the Japanese and be discovered. Unfortunately, this is about thirty minutes too long as it is practically its own film - leisurely unrolling the events with the pilots treated unreflectively as royalty by their hosts. I'd say the film title is pretty accurate, watch this one for the dramatic sequence of being thirty seconds over Tokyo and not much more. GRADE: C

2. Command Decision (1949) IMDB
- We take for granted right now the role that bombing raids had in World War II. This film is an excellent education on how bombing rose through the political fights to become the force it was. Clark Gable plays General Casey in charge of American Air Force daylight bombing and he comes into conflict with his superior when he takes heavy losses multiple days in a row. The central catch here is that the Air Force is caught in a catch-22: They can take an important bombing mission that will ensure their air superiority but incur heavy losses. If they do it, they could lose political support necessary to keep getting funds and keep Congress and Americans happy. If they don't do it, then they could cede the important initiative to the Germans allowing them to get superior technology that would result in further American losses in the war. 

The film is adapted from a play and the snappy dialogue, well-written characters, and intelligence definitely make sense when you realize it. Along with Twelve O'Clock High, these two films give great insight into the emotional toll bombing runs took on the people who knew certain percentages of planes would never return - and those numbers would be even higher the more prized the bombing location. This one is kind of forgotten in time it seems, but it doesn't deserve to be. GRADE: B+

3. Twelve O’Clock High (1949) IMDB
- An American bomber unit in England is suffering from high casualty rates and low morale. Bombing runs are a matter of probabilities. If ten planes go out and 8 come back, that's an 80% chance of survival. What about the more missions you take? Each mission is like playing the odds, you never know when your number will come up. Unlike land combat where you can sometimes see your enemy, bombing runs are most often done in the distance - you rarely see the plane or flak that takes you down. Bombing runs push a unique kind of stress that bomber crews faces and the film displays it well. A tough and disciplined commander, played excellently by Gregory Peck, takes over the demoralized crew and is determined to make them into the best bomber unit in the Air Force. Unlike the more simplistic “Leaders gotta be disciplined men” tales (which can have their place) led by John Wayne in films like The Flying Leathernecks and Sands of Iwo Jima, this film examines the issue with much more nuance and reflection. 

Peck is able to eventually get more effort and more efficiency from his men, but at what cost? There is a very interesting dramatization here with the question, "What is the right amount of effort a leader should get from their men?" sitting right at the heart of it. How do you even gauge what maximum effort is? What if maximum effort leads to high burnout and breakdowns? This film argues, successfully I believe, those questions aren’t as obvious as we often suspect. There's another feature to this film I really enjoyed and that's the rhythm of a bombing crew run. From the initial briefing, to taxiing, to takeoff, landing, and the post-interrogation. The glaring omission here is a standout sequence of an actual bombing run - though it isn't really necessary to the central dramatic focus of the film. It's just something I would have liked to be a more all around film. The "maximum effort" and "sanity" of a bombing crew that a story like Catch-22 deals with in comedic and ironic ways, this film handles dramatically. I think this is film is more successful and one of the best representatives of the category. GRADE: B+

4. The Flying Leathernecks (1951) IMDB
- John Wayne leads a squadron of Marine Wildcat fighter planes during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Directed by Nicholas Ray, this is the kind of somewhat stiff, simplistic, and jingoistic war film this time period is stereotyped with. Wayne plays the gruff officer looking to discipline wide-eyed innocent pilots who just need the whip to be successful soldiers. The combat is just as simplistic (and mostly relying on stock footage) – a pilot gets a bloodthirsty eye for Japs and leaves the formation, Wayne yells, “Get back in formation!” and the pilot ends up dead. If he only just listened to authority! Look it’s not that there isn’t some truth to this trope – it’s just done so simplistic and ham-handedly. GRADE: C

5. The Malta Story (1953) IMDB
- The island of Malta sits in a historically strategic spot in the Mediterranean Sea, between Sicily/Italy to its north and Tunisia to its south. During World War II, the British island of Malta sat right along key transport and resupply routes for both the Allies and the Axis. This film looks to tell the story of the Axis powers siege of Malta. Alec Guinness plays the role of a reconnaissance plane pilot and Jack Hawkins as the commander of the island. The island of Malta story plays out a bit like a microcosm of the main island of Britain early in the war - dependent on aerial fighters to engage the constant Axis air raids and dependent on naval convoys to bring fresh supplies or else they will be entirely cut off. The aerial sequences here are done serviceably with models and mixed lightly with stock war footage. There is a light subplot featuring a Maltese family and a Alec Guinness' officer, but this film is primarily about the military story. For me, that's the most interesting part so I'm glad that's where the focus is here. It's not quite as good as 1953's The Cruel Sea or The Desert Rats - but it's another solid entry into that uniquely great year of British war films. GRADE: B-

6. The Dam Busters (1955) IMDB
-  A British film covering the development and first use of “bouncing bombs” dropped from airplanes to attack German dams and weaken their industrial capability. It’s a nice little procedural film that follows the quirky inventor coming up with the idea, trying to sell the British top brass his ideas, testing and experimenting to perfect them, and finally training the right pilots to use them. The finale bombing run on the dams is a good action scene, a little dated, but very influential for the time. I wish it was a bit more reflective on the risk/reward of the actual mission and there's nothing here that I would say is "best in class" but in dramatizing how a technological development can open up new war scenarios and is run through the ranks of the establishment - this is a strong film. GRADE: B

7. The War Lover (1962) IMDB
- Steve McQueen plays a hotshot B-17 bomber pilot who loves breaking regulations and living fast. He looms large in the film as his flaws lead him to attempt to steal his bunkmate's girl and threaten all the lives of his bomber crew on runs. There are a couple bomber missions here done pretty well, the action is poor however, and the drama is mostly unremarkable and insignificant. This is a forgettable film with forgettable characters headed by an unlikable lead. GRADE: C-

8. 633 Squadron (1964) IMDB
- In this fictionalized war story, the titular bomber squadron is assigned to take out a Nazi rocket fuel site in a secluded fjord in Norway. If the fuel site is untouched, then the Nazi's will be able to fuel and launch their V2 rockets into England to ruin the D-Day landings. To prepare for the specialized bombing run, a war-weary but determined Cliff Robertson leads his squadron of light and fast deHavilland Mosquito bombers into the mountains of Scotland, which leads to some pretty awesome visuals. The second act sees some minor obstacles during training, but a nice twist is thrown in when an important Norwegian resistance member is captured by the SS. The British determine that it is necessary to bomb the Norwegian Gestapo headquarters, where the resistance member is being held, to keep him from talking, and save the vital mission. It's an interesting ethical choice. This nice mid-film twist and following action sequence provides a meaningful and unexpected addition when the 2nd act of other films like this often end up just feeling like filler. The finale sequence is relies heavily on miniatures, mixed with some real footage, and studio mockups of the cockpits. It's editing turns it into an engaging and effective aerial sequence despite effects that are dated and shots that are often repeated. This is a solid, but not spectacular, war film. GRADE: B-

9. Mosquito Squadron (1969) IMDB
- This is basically an inferior copy of the template set in 633 Squadron. In this British film, the bomber crew is tasked with taking out a secret Nazi site for the development of new weapons, likely an advanced version of their V1 and V2 rockets. Everything feels pretty standard here (briefings, specialized training runs, subplot of love drama) and there isn't much that isn't done better in similar films about specialized bombing runs like The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron. The second act twist in this film is that the Nazi's have decided to house British POWs on the site to deter any kind of British attack. The ethics of the situation are mulled over and a new and riskier bombing plan is put in place. This plan requires a mission to evacuate the POWs first before dropping the bombs on the site. This finale sequence is decent and features not just the bombing run, but ground action between the Germans and the French resistance covering for the escaping POWs. This is decent, but skippable fare. The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron is similar, but much better. GRADE: C

10. The Battle of Britain (1969) IMDB
-In the vein of 1962’s The Longest Day and 1965’s Battle of the Bulge, this is a well-meaning big budget recreation of a pivotal event of the European campaign. It portrays the four to five month period of 1940 where Germany's Luftwaffe (Air Force) sought to gain air superiority over Britain in order to cut it off from re-supply and defense in preparation for invasion. Per the usual blockbuster formula, we get the commanders on both sides feeding the viewers their strategy and mindset and then we are given waves aerial dogfights featuring lots of physical planes and many of the real airfields. It’s a bit dated in that kind of pre-Vietnam films (which upped the violence bar), CGI (which upped the scope ante), and Saving Private Ryan (which combined the other two into a new 'visceral' desaturated look that became the standard) war blockbuster way of the 60’s, but this is handsomely produced, informative, and well performed. Two little moments stand out to me from the film, I'll share here. First, there's a touching subplot about air raid shelters that has stuck with me. Second, for some strange reason I absolutely love the aesthetic of British pilots waiting to scramble for orders by sitting out in lawn chairs on the green grass runways. It's a very particular image that feels very "Battle of Britain" to me. GRADE: B+

11. Memphis Belle (1990) IMDB
- The Memphis Belle is an American B-17 Bomber that famously completed all 25 of its missions without being shot down. The film looks to portray a fictionalized version of their last mission flight. For about twenty minutes, this film shines as it depicts the banter and different roles of everyone in the bomber group on their way to the bombing location. After a fighter plane takes out another bomber in their group we grieve along with the men as they deal with it. For that sequence alone, the film is worth it. It honestly had my hopes up too. Unfortunately, outside of those moments, the film just goes downhill from there. Since it's a fictionalized version, the writers decide to throw nearly every obstacle at the crew on one flight. This means the bombing mission gets too dramatic with everything going wrong that possibly can, everyone getting almost shot up, falling out, dying, etc. You can feel the screenwriter at work manipulating the story. There's a decent film to be found but you have to dig underneath far too much sensationalism and dramatics. GRADE: C+

12. The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) IMDB
- This HBO film tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen: the first African American fighter group to fight in the American Army. The story is very conventional, but it is well acted and still very effective. What's not forgivable is just how much this film relies on stock war footage for their flying sequences. For a film in 1995 to use stock war footage for their action sequences is jarring. It leads to ridiculous inaccuracies like white capped mountains and green fields often appearing in what are supposed to be North African desert landscapes. These issues and the formulaic but engaging story combine to produce mixed feelings. GRADE: C+

13. Red Tails (2012) IMDB
- Coming 17 years after The Tuskegee Airmen, this film also looks to tell their story, but with more of a combat focus. This film is a bit of a flip from the 1995 HBO version. Where the 1995 film shined in its dramatic performances, but struggled mightily in the action - this film is just the opposite. If it was possible to combine the character work and dramatic execution of 1995’s The Tuskegee Airmen with the visual presentation of the aerial action from this movie then you’d have a classic telling of the story. Instead, this film will give you some excellent aerial action sequences sandwiched by static and cookie cutter characters and plot conflicts. GRADE: C+

14. Midway (2019) IMDB
- This film was included in the "War in the Pacific" series for its portrait of the Battle of Midway. I doubled it up here for making the pilots and planes the central focus of the story. This is essentially an aerial film about the Battle of Midway. Roland Emmerich, creator of films like Independence Day and The Patriot, tells the story of the major turning point in the Pacific campaign, the air and naval battle of Midway. The first two thirds set up the main battle by covering Pearl Harbor and other run ups to the circumstances before Pearl. The film does a good job portraying the mindset of the Japanese officials and their planning going into the battle, but the attempt to dramatize the American soldiers involved is a huge misstep. The portrayal is accurate to the basic history but is so stereotypical and poorly written that it weighs down the better portions of the film. The final third of the film is a collection of sequences covering the the air and naval battle. If you can put aside the cheesy drama and character portrayals, you are treated to the greatest CGI World War II Navy battle ever put to film. The sequence is fairly comprehensive of the actual battle, but the meat and potatoes begin with US torpedo squads spotting the Japanese fleet and failing in their first run. Eventually the U.S. dive bomber squads arrive and take on the fleet with great success. These bombing runs are beautifully shot, tense, and the gem of the entire film. The visuals are breathtaking: an ocean packed with naval vessels, a sky packed with planes and flak, bomber runs going for carriers with flak flying all over. This is director Roland Emmerich’s greatest achievement as the bombing runs on the Japanese carriers do justice to being a dynamic action sequence, accurately portraying a real-life battle, and cover the emotions and worries of the commanders and pilots on all sides. Skip the 1976 version and give this one a view - as you look past the cheesiest elements. GRADE: B-