Filmmakers have always loved a good sea story, and as naval combat evolved to include an all-important aerial component, Hollywood was more than happy to go along for the ride. Loud, exciting, visually impressive, and inherently dangerous as hell, naval aviation was tailor-made for the action-packed adventures of the cinematic dream factory. Here, then, as a Saturday-matinee addition to naval aviation’s centennial, is a celebration in celluloid.
Hell Divers (1931) Far more interesting today for its priceless naval-aviation footage than for its creaky plot and corny acting, Hell Divers is such a moldy-oldie that coarse, hammy Wallace Beery gets top billing over a certain up-and-coming player named Clark Gable. The two portray dueling chief petty officers with clashing styles on board the USS Saratoga (CV-3); Beery is the rough-hewn, lovable old salt, while young Gable (not even yet sporting his trademark mustache) is the talented new hotshot. Hell Divers offers a rare glimpse of naval aviation in its infancy, with Curtiss F8C Helldiver biplanes taking off and landing on the historic Saratoga in wild-and-wooly fashion. It’s always been a high-risk calling, but it looks especially daredevil-crazy here. Viewers also are treated to a deck-landing by the rigid airship Los Angeles (ZR-3), while the screenplay lurches from military-movie cliché to brawling comedics to a hokey, manipulative-melodramatic finale. Gable and Beery hated working together; the next (and last) time they costarred was four years later, with Gable recognizably mustachioed and enjoying top billing in China Seas.
Dive Bomber (1941) In this fine early example of Technicolor filmmaking, Errol Flynn stars as a Harvard-educated flight surgeon, butting heads with naval aviator Fred MacMurray and vying for the hand of lovely Alexis Smith. Flynn is out to solve the problem of pilot blackout; MacMurray and he go from being adversaries to allies in the quest. This was the last of 12 Flynn pictures helmed by famed action director Michael Curtiz; the two detested each other but were one of the most successful director-star pairings of Hollywood’s golden age. The Navy granted Warner Brothers an unprecedented degree of access to film on location at the Naval Air Station at Coronado, California, and on board the USS Enterprise (CV-6) anchored at San Diego. Thus, in addition to its value as slick, exciting Hollywood entertainment, Dive Bomber provides the history buff with a great look (in color, no less) at the Navy on the eve of World War II. Trivia note: The legendary Lieutenant Edward “Butch” O’Hare, a future Medal of Honor recipient and one of the Navy’s top aces of the war, is one of the pilots flying the planes on view during this movie’s flight footage.
Task Force (1949) The history of naval aviation is embodied here in the reminiscences of a fictional admiral played by Gary Cooper. We see the wild early days of the 1920s, when pioneering aces risked their necks landing biplanes on a 65-foot flight deck. The struggle for aircraft-carrier acceptance is depicted, along with the ultimate vindication that came with World War II. Relegated to desk duty before the war, Cooper comes into his own—along with the carrier technology for which he has crusaded—once the shooting starts. B-Western actor Wayne Morris, who here portrays a dive-bombing lieutenant, was a genuine World War II flying ace with four Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals to his credit. Task Force is a must-see for naval-aviation devotees.
Flying Leathernecks (1951) This heartfelt paean to Marine aviation in World War II is formulaic but well-paced, with a good cast. John Wayne is the new no-nonsense major of a squadron about to take to the dangerous skies over Guadalcanal. Robert Ryan’s the popular captain who got passed over for the command. They do the good-cop/bad-cop thing with their flock of flying Marines, and soon they’re all enmeshed in the hell that was Guadalcanal: a fiercely contested jungle airstrip, threats from land and sea, high-risk missions, a shortage of planes, and the overall strain of combat. Meanwhile, Wayne’s character is attempting to advance and perfect the use of close-air support to help his brethren of the Corps, whom the fliers affectionately nickname the “mud Marines,” struggling and bleeding for every inch of the island.
Wayne was a great star and Ryan was a great actor, but their performances here are purely perfunctory; they seem to be dialing it in, to a degree. The behind-the-scenes political dynamics must have been fascinating: Ryan and director Nicholas Ray were superliberals, while Wayne and RKO Pictures chief Howard Hughes were ultraconservatives. And the movie was made during the heyday of the Red Scare. Adding further complexity, Ryan had actually served in the Marines during World War II—as a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton—while Wayne didn’t serve at all (for reasons still debated to this day). Among Wayne’s war movies of the 1940s and ’50s, Flying Leathernecks doesn’t rise to the top; it’s no Sands of Iwo Jima or They Were Expendable, but it’s a worthy tribute to Marine fliers during a perilous chapter of World War II.
Flat Top (1952) Less well known than Flying Leathernecks (but using the same hoary plot device—Stern Commander vs. Popular Subordinate Officer), Flat Top is a by-the-numbers B-movie, to be sure, but nonetheless a satisfying experience for anyone wanting a naval-aviation fix. It isn’t filet mignon, but it’s a pleasantly filling cheeseburger with fries. Filmed on board the USS Princeton (CV-37), Flat Top stars Sterling Hayden as the gruff, combat-seasoned commander leading a fresh batch of naval aviators. 1950s sci-fi icon Richard Carlson costars as the amiable executive officer, an Annapolis grad who is too nice to the men for their own good. Hayden often seemed like an indifferent performer, a reluctant star who would rather have been off sailing (the sea was his passion). But he’s quite effective here as the hard-nosed CO who’s stingy with a compliment and critical of every deviation from perfection.
As they wend their way farther across the Pacific through a series of escalatingly dangerous aerial-combat scenarios, the guys start to realize their commander has their own best interests at heart. Yes, it’s Cliché Central, but the script, by hardboiled mystery-novelist-turned-prolific-screenwriter Steve Fisher, manages to move it all along at a brisk clip. Authentic color footage from World War II is woven into the picture, which of course causes that perpetual dilemma of continuity-flaw howlers; we see an actor in a particular cockpit, then cut to aerial action that shows him in a different type of plane, while the later landing shot may show him in something different yet again. But it’s a shoestring-budget movie from 1952 made by down-market Monogram Pictures, so you just kind of go with it. Flat Top actually held its world premiere on board the Princeton in San Diego Harbor, replete with Navy officials, Hollywood folks, and media fanfare.
Men of the Fighting Lady (1954) The prolific pen of James Michener contributed to this tough aircraft-carrier actioner, partly based on an article by Michener (who is portrayed onscreen, by Louis Calhern, as a narrator). Van Johnson heads a cast of MGM regulars in a no-frills look at life on board a carrier in the Sea of Japan as her squadron conducts Korean War bombing runs. And despite what that title would suggest, the story does not take place on the USS Yorktown (CV-10), but the Oriskany (CV-34). (Maybe the studio thought the title it went with sounded better than Men of the Mighty O.) The most famous—and incredible—sequence, in which Johnson “talks in” a blinded pilot to a safe landing, is based on a true incident. Rarely if ever has the grim reality of carrier service, or the grave dangers Navy jet pilots faced in Korea, been more rawly portrayed.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) Bravery and heroism are celebrated, while the futility and tragedy of war are acknowledged in this memorable drama based on the best-selling James Michener novella. William Holden stars as a lawyer who did dangerous duty as a Navy flier during World War II. He’s called back into service in the Korean War, and he’s none too pleased. (His wife is the radiant Grace Kelly, so who can blame him?) His white-knuckle adventures in the skies over Korea culminate with the titular mission: Those five bridges deep in enemy territory need to be blown up, though relentless North Korean antiaircraft artillery has something to say about that. Stupendous action sequences (Bridges won the Oscar for Best Special Effects) alternate with touching family scenes as the story careens to its inevitable finale. Fredric March, as Holden’s admiral, sums it all up with the famous line: “Where do we get such men?”
The Wings of Eagles (1957) Question: What do the first two movies in this list (Hell Divers and Dive Bomber) have in common? Answer: Both were scripted by Commander Frank “Spig” Wead, an early naval-aviation pioneer whose flying career was cut short in 1926 when he broke his neck and was paralyzed. Rather than throwing in the towel, Wead reinvented himself as a writer, going on to a successful career in books, magazines, and Hollywood screenplays—furthering the cause of naval aviation through the written word. The Wings of Eagles is the Spig Wead story, brought to you by the John Ford–John Wayne stock company. Wead and Ford were buddies and collaborators (Wead penned Ford’s 1945 They Were Expendable), and here, the brawling, larger-than-life hotshot Navy pilot-turned-screenwriter is depicted by the brawling, larger-than-life Wayne. (For the only time in screen history, we see the Duke without his hairpiece as he plays Wead in his later, balding years.) At times too broad and comical in an almost frat-boy way, this one’s still a worthwhile saga for the aficionado, as it chronicles the unique life of a naval-aviation legend.
Midway (1976) An all-star cast—Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Toshiro Mifune, and Robert Mitchum, among others—can’t save what should have been, considering its subject matter, an all-time great naval epic. Instead it’s a cheap-looking, anachronism-riddled misfire, replete with grafted-on soap-opera subplots and the overall feel of a TV production. Fonda created one of the cinema’s most enduringly lovable U.S. Navy characters in 1955’s Mister Roberts; here, he’s rather flat and humdrum as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Despite the thundering bass effects of the ’70s “Sensurround” audio process, Midway is a tinny effort that falls flat; America’s Trafalgar deserves much better.
The Final Countdown (1980) Navy adventure and sci-fi are meshed in this somewhat cheesy but perennially enjoyable curiosity. The Twilight Zone–style plot involves a time warp, a tempting opportunity, and the cosmic ramifications of altering the course of history. An aging but still-engaging Kirk Douglas plays the skipper of the supercarrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68), on maneuvers off Hawaii when a freak squall sucks the mighty warship into a supernatural vortex (the low-tech special effects are so bad they’re good), and the ship and crew suddenly are transported back in time to 6 December 1941. That’s right—it’s the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Nimitz, with all her modern supersonic firepower, is in a position to repel the Japanese onslaught and save the Navy (and America) from one of its worst days ever. But then Captain Kirk and company realize that if they act, they’ll radically change everything that will subsequently transpire in the grand arc of human events. Talk about a decision-point dilemma! Martin Sheen, James Farentino, and Katharine Ross are all on board for the mind-bending sea story, but the real star is the Nimitz herself, captured in all her glory during her 1979–80 cruise (with the Atlantic standing in for the Pacific). If nothing else, The Final Countdown offers great documentary footage of the Nimitz, with plenty of exciting flight-deck takeoff and landing action featuring F-14s and other aircraft that would have kicked serious posterior in 1941.
Top Gun (1986) It would be easy for the cineaste to scoff and sneer at this formulaic, ultra-slick megahit that epitomizes ’80s moviemaking at its most high-gloss and calculated. But it remains eminently watchable entertainment, with thoroughly dazzling F-14 flight sequences that knocked everyone’s socks off when it was released, and still look great today. Tom Cruise is at his cocky, grinning Tom Cruise-est as Maverick, the handsome Alpha-dog among the latest class of trainees at the Miramar Naval Air Station. His goofy, lovable wingman, played by Anthony Edwards, is actually the favorite character for many fans. Kansas City Barbeque, the bar/restaurant where they woo Kelly McGillis with a slapdash rendition of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” has since become a San Diego tourist landmark. And who can ever forget Val Kilmer, memorably reptilian and weird as Maverick’s archnemesis, Iceman?
Since its late-’80s pop-cultural heyday (VHS copies of the movie were ubiquitous back then, from 7-Eleven shelves to dorm-room floors), Top Gun has spawned a whole body of folklore and urban legend. Its purported gayness has become the stuff of sitcom jokes and YouTube clips, thanks largely to a hilariously overcooked analysis delivered by Quentin Tarantino in the 1994 movie Sleep With Me (and to be fair to Top Gun, Tarantino misquotes it in a way that serves to strengthen his gay-subtext theory). Meanwhile, talks of a remake have been floating around Hollywood for a while, with Cruise himself allegedly in the loop for an appearance. A crowd-pleaser that was and remains critic-proof, Top Gun was the top box-office moneymaker of 1986 and the recruitment poster for a generation.
Flight of the Intruder (1991) South China Sea, 1972: Fed up by the dragged-out inconclusiveness of the Vietnam War and embittered over the recent combat loss of his navigator buddy, A-6 Intruder pilot Jake “Cool Hand” Grafton (Brad Johnson) heads off on a rogue flight to Hanoi to wreak some havoc, with rule-breaking Lieutenant Commander Virgil Cole (Willem Dafoe) along for the unauthorized sortie. Old-school war-movie heroics are grafted onto the Vietnam experience in this chest-thumping action flick from blood-and-thunder director John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn). Based on the novel by Stephen Coonts, Flight of the Intruder was partially filmed on the USS Independence (CV-62) and boasts aerial sequences that rival Top Gun’s. Though it made much less of a splash than Cruise’s movie, it’s got the right stuff for the naval-aviation buff.
Also worth a look are the following pictures, which offer less in the way of carrier action, but are of tangential interest to those surveying the naval-aviation movie canon:
The Great Santini (1979) Classic family drama; Robert Duvall plays a Marine pilot who’s one seriously tough father.
An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) Wildly popular romantic hit with a Navy Aviation Officer Candidate School setting; Richard Gere and Debra Winger costar.
Hot Shots! (1991) An Airplane!-style Top Gun parody, a laugh-a-minute gut-buster starring Charlie Sheen in his pre-meltdown prime.