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Is there any form of combat that better captures the imagination than aerial dogfighting? Equal parts thrilling and elegant, it combines the majesty of the open skies with a break-neck pace. It’s a tough thing to capture on film, since aircraft imitating a deadly encounter is both expensive and dangerous. That hasn’t stopped filmmakers from trying, with some paying tribute to the aerial aces of old and others dreaming of what battles for the sky could look like in the future.
With the World War II action/adventure film Red Tails now in theaters, we figured to celebrate some of the best dogfighting scenes on film, in a trip through history that starts in the days of the Wright brothers, and goes all the way to the far-flung future.
Kicking things off historically is the 2006 film Flyboys, which dramatizes the earliest days of planes as weapons of war, and the men who would become the very first fighter pilots. It was a risky time to be using the new technology; parachutes weren’t an option and the idea of adding machine guns to reconnaissance planes was a novel one. The film’s battle between American pilots and Germans guarding a zeppelin makes the danger of flying a flimsy and flammable biplane apparent. The lack of communication between pilots make most fights a one-on-one affair and despite the complete reliance of CGI to showcase the combat, romanticizing the daring-do pilots of old makes the scene an enjoyable throwback.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The interwar years saw development of a new engine type that let planes reach horsepower five times that of the best engines used in WWI, and the biplane was phased out of combat in favor of the faster monoplane. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade highlights the deadly improvements to fighter aircraft in a fun little sequence where Indy and his dad escape a German blimp on a biplane, only to find themselves pursued by much faster and well-armed Pilatus P-2 planes. The pair have to make an abrupt landing as they’re quickly outgunned, and though they aren’t the most skilled pilots, the Jones duo provide plenty of onboard entertainment.
Tora! Tora! Tora!
The events of Pearl Harbor saw America’s Hawaiian air force crippled early by Japanese bombers, but a pair of young Lieutenants managed to get planes off the ground and evenvdestroy more than six enemy aircraft, despite being heavily outnumbered. It’s a pretty incredible story and its recreation in 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! makes for an exceptional scene. It relies heavily on footage of real planes barrelling towards one another, and showcases some pretty convincing explosion work. There’s no expository shouting from characters describing the scene, it’s just two solid minutes of exciting dogfighting.
Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor has more in common with Transformers than Tora! Tora! Tora!, and it’s mostly just a three-hour demo reel for the explosives experts Bay must have on retainer. Bay reimagines the story of the two U.S. fighter pilots at Pearl Harbor in the form of a low-altitude chase scene that culminates in the Americans tricking four Japanese planes into head-on collisions. It’s a CGI laden-mess, but you have to admire Bay’s gall for melding a historical setting with modern action movie bombast.
You Only Live Twice
Fast-forward 20 years to the '60s and aviation technology got a lot more varied, and a lot goofier. Case in point: “Little Nellie,” James Bond’s helicopter of choice in You Only Live Twice. Technically a gyroplane, Bond’s fly in the sky looks more like an amusement park ride than the cutting-edge of secret intelligence technology, but Little Nellie packs a big punch. Just ask the five S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agents who try to pick a fight with Bond, only to wind up on the receiving end of Nellie’s impressive array of weaponry. Missiles, aerial mines and a freaking flamethrower round out the arsenal used in a fun scene played to the synonymous Bond theme song. It proves you should never mess with a double-O agent, no matter how silly his ride.
1986’s Top Gun brought the aerial warfare of the movies into a whole other era. Although the similarly jet-themed Iron Eagle beat it to release by a good five months, there are plenty of reasons Top Gun remains one of 1980’s most iconic movies. Chief among them is the introduction of combat at supersonic speeds. The F-14 Tomcats on display bring back the two-seater partner action of old biplanes, and the introduction of guided missiles made ship-to-ship combat a high-speed game of cat and mouse. The climax has Iceman and Maverick fending off a superior force of MiG-29s, and despite being forced to reuse footage, Scott’s direction will satisfy any viewers need for speed.
Tony Scott had to work his butt off just to show a half-dozen real jets getting into a melee, but by 1996, 1s and 0s started to do a lot more of the fighting. Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day took the basic air combat playbook and blew it up by a factor of 10. Even better, it’s got the world’s supply of F/A-18 hornets engaging the vile and easily distinguishable alien aircraft that have blown up every city with a major sports team. The film’s climactic air-to-air battle over Area 51 doesn’t have the tricky maneuvers of other flight movies, but it makes up for it in sheer scale, with dozens of fighters whizzing on and off-screen at once. The fact that 17-year-old technology is still watchable speaks to the smart mix of models and digital effects used to show all the high-flying heroics.
The Empire Strikes Back
Okay, so technically Star Wars takes place a long time ago, but until we make a ship that can navigate the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, on-screen aircraft won’t get much more advanced than the Millennium Falcon. Really just a light freighter ship with a few upgrades, the Falcon is perhaps better known for its pilot, Han Solo, whose skills are put to the test early in The Empire Strikes Back. With four Imperial tie-fighters in hot pursuit and the hyper-drive out of commission, Han has no choice but to fly his trusty ship through an asteroid field. It’s an iconic scene from the Star Wars saga, featuring great model explosions and one of John Williams’ best themes from the entire franchise.
And speaking of Star Wars, George Lucas produced and did reshoots on Red Tails.