Quick! What movie comes to mind when I say Army? We Were Soldiers? Platoon? Taking Chance?
Now, what about Marines? Full Metal Jacket? Jarhead? Flags of Our Fathers?
Navy? Men of Honor? Battle of Midway?
Space Force? The Space Jam remake?
Coast Guard? Well, never mind…
Now, what about the Air Force? “Weren’t there Air Force guys in Transformers?” Yes, there were.
“Isn’t Top Gun a -” NO, it isn’t!
“I know! Dr. Strangelove!” Uh… kind of…
So, here, now, are four movies everyone should see that highlight the best, worst, or funniest the U.S. Air Force has to offer.
Best Air Force Movies
Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964)
Dr. Strangelove was the brainchild of the inimitable Stanley Kubrick. (Kubrick also directed one of the most iconic Marine movies out there: Full Metal Jacket.) Shot during the height of the Cold War, this movie brilliantly handles the fear and anxiety felt by the nation, by casting it in such a ridiculous light.
Made without the blessing of the DoD or the Department of the Air Force, Kubrick’s movie still managed to show us the inside of a B-52, a Pentagon “war-room,” and the minds of government officials at the time.
The movie revolves around the pre-emptive nuclear strike on Russia, ordered by Air Force General Jack D. Ripper, and the bumbling attempts to recall it. Peter Sellers plays Dr. Stangelove, as well as two others roles, including the president.
The whole movie is a satire of the principles of nuclear deterrence. Kubrick shows the nightmare scenario of a rogue Air Force leader, exceeding his authority and setting off a chain of events that will end in Mutually Assured Destruction. The comedy in the movie unfolds so well because the players do not see the lunacy of their actions. The movie makes fun of both American and Russian responses, giving the viewer iconic lines like: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” and Slim Pickens’ whoopin’ ride to the finish line.
The Day After (1983)
A counterpoint to Strangelove’s absurdity, The Day After shows the horror and desolation of a nuclear strike. I came of age in the ’80s, and I remember doing fallout drills in elementary school. My school was a fallout shelter for the rural area I grew up in.
My family and I sat glued to the TV in 1983 when ABC aired The Day After, a made-for-TV movie that depicted the day after nuclear war begins. I remember being terrified by that movie, more so than any other movie I have ever seen, before or since.
The movie is centered in Lawrence, Kansas, and tells the story of escalation to all-out nuclear war. While not technically an Air Force movie, it highlights the Minuteman II missile silos in neighboring Missouri and the airmen tasked with their deployment. With stark imagery and excellent performances by Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, and Steve Guttenberg, this movie hits very hard with those that remember the anxiety of the Cold War. The film is still the most-watched television film in history and still makes my blood run cold.
Strategic Air Command (1955)
Of the movies listed, this is the one most closely associated with the Air Force. Produced in 1955, the movie chronicles both the recall to active duty of Lt Col Robert “Dutch” Holland and the escalation and readiness of the AF’s nuclear arm, Strategic Air Command (SAC).
The film stars Jimmy Stewart as Dutch Holland, a former B-29 pilot and current third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. General Ennis Hawks, based on real-life SAC commander General Curtis LeMay, recalls Holland to learn the B-36 Bomber, and then take over flying operations of the new B-47 jet-powered bomber.
Blatantly propagandist, the film was made to bring the mission and sacrifice of SAC warriors into the public eye, and it works. Military aviation enthusiasts will revel in the flying shots of the B-36 Peacemaker and the B-47 Stratojet. The fact that Jimmy Stewart was an actual B-24 Liberator pilot during WWII lends credence to the movie.
The film accurately portrays flight-line operations and gives a small glimpse of life on a bomber base. The sight and sounds of the B-47 “elephant walk” immediately bring to mind living at RAF Lakenheath and F-15E’s constantly screaming overhead. If you have a patriotic bone in your body, this film will appeal to you. I spent 20 years in the AF, and I considered re-enlisting after seeing this movie.
Air Force (1943)
On December 6, 1941, the crew of the B-17 bomber Mary-Ann set off to ferry the bomber from California to Pearl Harbor. The crew had no idea they would fly into history.
Air Force recounts the events of these men who flew smack, unarmed and unprepared, into the middle of the most audacious attack in U.S. history. While the premise of the movie is based on true events, the bulk of the film is fictional as it follows the Mary-Ann and its crew throughout the war in the Pacific.
The movie stirs patriotism with shots of the B-17s, scrambles on the ground to stay ahead of the Japanese forces, and the worry and sorrow of the families left behind. Another one for the aviation enthusiasts, the movie features exceptionally good footage of B-17s in the air. The scenes where the crew “rebuilds” the Mary-Ann from salvaged parts of wrecked B-17s brought to mind the early days of GWOT, and canning parts from not-mission-capable jets to get C-5 Galaxies in the air. Minus the machine-gun fire and Japanese forces’ imminent overrun, that is.
The patriotic and propagandist tone of the movie is undeniable as the movie was made in 1943. It was made to keep Americans invested in the war, playing on xenophobia felt against Japanese-Americans, and portraying Japanese forces as monsters. The movie is definitely dated, but gives a true view of the sentiments of the day.
These are MY Air Force Movies!
This list is totally subjective. I spoke with no one regarding which movies would make this list, and the views are my own. I would not have listened to detractors in any case.
Readers are encouraged to pass on their picks, but please understand they will be wrong.
Memphis Belle (1990) – The story of the B-17 “Memphis Belle”, its final bombing mission, and the crew members that made it happen.
Bat 21 (1988) – The story of Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton’s EB-66 Destroyer, shot down over North Vietnam, and subsequent rescue efforts. Based on true events.
War Games (1983) – High-school hacker inadvertently sets World War III in motion. Appeals to the sci-fi nerd in me.
Transformers (2007) – A war of alien robots threatens the earth. Not necessarily an AF movie, but cool shots of numerous AF assets like the MH-53 and F-22 abound. Bonus: much of the film was shot at Holloman Air Force Base, NM.