Where have all the good Air Force movies gone?
Air power should, and occasionally does, sell at the box office. But Officer and a Gentleman, Top Gun, Flight of the Intruder and Rescue Dawn all depicted Navy pilots. In Independence Day, Marine aviator Will Smith saves the world, alternating between a Marine Corps F/A-18 and an alien snubfighter.
The Air Force gets Iron Eagle, in which a teenager with a tape recorder fills in for Maverick and Goose. More recently, Red Tails flopped with audiences and critics. Only Pearl Harbor stands as partial exception. Hated by critics, historians and all right-thinking people, director Michael Bay’s depiction of Army Air Force aviators challenging the Japanese grossed $197 million domestically.
Why, despite the expenditure of tremendous resources on PR, does the Air Force have such trouble connecting with the movie-going public?
Well before the beginning of powered military aviation, artists began to imagine what war in the air might look like. Some of the earliest conceptions of strategic bombing developed out of H.G. Wells The War in the Air, a 1907 novel depicting the destruction of most of Western civilization in a series of horrific aerial bombing campaigns.
In the wake of World War I, independence-minded aviators in America and the United Kingdom weaponized cinema. One of the first Hollywood films to realistically depict air combat was “Wild Bill” Wellman’s movie Wings, which won an Oscar for best picture.
Wellman had served as a fighter pilot on the Western Front, claiming three kills and five probables before being shot down by German anti-aircraft fire. Wings, which remains a magnificent piece of cinematic artistry, was a huge popular and critical success.
The Golden Age of Air Force films came after World War II, as the service began to stretch its wings, culturally speaking. 1949’s Twelve O’Clock High depicted preparations for the legendary Schweinfurt Raid, an ill-fated attack against a German ball-bearing factory.
The film showed the collapse and restoration of morale in a bomber unit sorely tested by high tempo and high casualties, and featured an outstanding performance by Gregory Peck.
Otto Preminger’s The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell recounted the history of conflict over American air power, treating Billy Mitchell as a hero who spoke truth to power. In Strategic Air Command, Jimmy Stewart gave up a career in major-league baseball to return to the Air Force, flying B-36s and B-47s until a shoulder injury forced him back to the big leagues.
As the Cold War continued, however, bombing acquired bad associations. Henry Fonda presided over the nuclear destruction of Moscow and New York in 1964’s Failsafe, followed shortly by Dr. Strangelove, where Peter Sellers fails to prevent a brave B-52 crew from inadvertently destroying the world.
The best Vietnam films take place against a backdrop of B-52-led destruction of wide swaths of Southeast Asia, rarely depicting Air Force aviators in a heroic light.
Even World War II, a reliable go-to for the Army, has fallen short for the Air Force. Red Tails bombed— and not in a good way—and in any case was less about air power than racial discrimination in uniform.
Perhaps more importantly, Red Tails and Memphis Belle both touch lightly on the central purpose of American strategic air power in World War II. The Memphis Belle and the bombers saved by the black Tuskegee airmen were on their way to drop loads of bombs on German civilians.
Daylight precision bombing notwithstanding, by modern standards this accounts as a war crime. Audiences appreciate, on some level, that planes that get through—whether our heroes are in the bombers themselves or the escorts flying alongside—do terrible things to the cities they find.
Unlike the Royal Air Force, the USAF has no Battle of Britain, a heroic moment in which brave fighter pilots turned back hordes of enemy bombers flown by unpleasant people. More often, Americans fly the planes—or the drones—that drop bombs and fire missiles at nearly defenseless targets.
Writers and directors struggle to explain the strategic logic behind these missions in the two-hour frame offered by contemporary cinema.
What can the Air Force do to change this story? Part of the problem—as with Iron Eagle and Top Gun—is simply bad luck. But another part involves the inability of the Air Force to articulate a way of valorizing a history which appears, to modern sensibilities, a bit shady. It’s harder to make the case for incinerating Hamburg than storming the beaches at Normandy.
Similarly, audiences empathize more easily with grunts in the Vietnamese jungle than with pilots dropping napalm and dodging surface-to-air missiles.
Whether the difficulty of dramatizing Air Force life matters for the future of the service remains to be seen, but Billy Mitchell and Wild Bill Weldman would probably be alarmed to learn that air power has a tough time winning at the box office.