Top 10 Aerial Dogfights in Film History | A CineFix Movie List

With Top Gun: Maverick shaking things up, we thought it would be the perfect time to revisit our best aerial dogfights in movie history list and see how it holds up to the high speeds of 2022.

You can watch our video breakdown above or check out the article or slideshow below, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on what you believe to be the best cinematic dogfights of all time!

10. Wings – World War I

The Blue Max and Aces High both make a fantastic compromise between early visual effects and actual-aerial footage, and we are continually astonished by Howard Hughes’ insanely ambitious ability to darken the sky with his enormous dogfights in Dawn Patrol and Hell’s Angels, but as far as World War I goes, we still don’t think it gets any better than the very first dogfight from Hollywood’s very first Academy Award winner: Wings.

World War I is the perfect period for aerial dogfights done in silent fashion. Without radios, there was no need for dialogue. The action moves slowly enough and happens at close enough range that, compared to later engagements with BVR (Beyond Visual Range combat) combat at Mach 1, there’s little need for pilot chatter to orient us as to what’s happening.

And in that respect, Wings — the epic story of a love triangle cut in two by the war — is just the best of the best. Decades ahead of its time, it practically invented aerial cinematography (at least as far as combat was concerned) and most of the cinematic grammar we still use when shooting fighter pilot scenes today was created here.

Directed by William Wellman — an actual pilot in World War I — the film is just about as real as it gets. Shot with real military planes and pilots from the Air Corps (the predecessor to the Air Force), an unprecedented percentage of the footage was captured in the actual air, often with actors actually flying the planes, with meticulous compositions of wingmen or pursuers in the very same frame behind them without any visual effects tricks or rear projection.

Wings is an utterly astonishing accomplishment — hardly beaten to this day — and it’s a must-include on any dogfight list.

9. Battle of Britain – World War II

Next up, we’re fast-forwarding a decade or two, passing by The Great Waldo Pepper in a rare but phenomenal interbellum dogfight without guns, and landing at World War II’s European theater.

Dunkirk’s real-deal IMAX footage is absolutely stunning. However, we think it’s a little more successful as a structural element in the greater story than as a standalone, action-packed dogfight. The War Lover gives us a great window into the flying fortress versus fighter duels that took place over Europe, as does The Memphis Belle. But we think we ever so slightly prefer the climactic dogfight of The Battle of Britain.

The dogfighting sequences of The Battle of Britain and Memphis Belle both offer reversed perspectives on fighters attempting to interdict an attack run. Memphis Belle put us inside an unescorted American B-17 Bomber under attack, while The Battle of Britain instead located us inside the cockpits of the intercepting Spitfires. Both films focus on cooperation in aerial combat, but in two very different ways.

And while Memphis Belle’s air battles are deeply rewarding in their inter-ship coordination, Battle of Britain’s final battle – with no dialogue or sound effects but for the roaring classical score – is one of cinema’s all-time best.

The camera swoops and soars like its heroes, each in their own aerial corvette – meticulously restored for the shooting of the film – and nimbly jockeying for guns-on position. There is a world of agile hit-and-runs and desperately fragile vulnerability to often a single well-placed counterattack. But it is the music’s placement at the forefront of the sequence that tells the dramatic story of the aerial carnage better than any explanatory dialogue or intertitle ever could.

It is a rare dogfight that is both poetic and climactic, but Battle of Britain pulls it off and then some.

8. Tora! Tora! Tora! – World War II: Pacific

While the Battle of Britain was raging in Europe, an entirely different set of battles colored the skies in the Pacific Theatre, and Hollywood made the movies to match.

There aren’t quite as many entrants here. The kinetic-but-silly Pearl Harbor has dogfights over both oceans. Wild Blue Yonder and Unbroken both have great bomber-centric-moments, as does Howard Hawks’ Air Force, while both versions of Midway have worthy plane vs. ship action. However, there is one Pacific Theatre film that stands out way above the rest. And that’s been the case for many years running: Tora! Tora! Tora!

Telling the two-sided story of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a rare American/Japanese co-production where the film’s opposing perspectives are shot by the filmmakers from each respective country. That includes an uncredited Akira Kurosawa, who left the project early into filming because, well, what about this movie sounds like it makes any sense for Akira Kurosawa to direct it?

Even before arriving at the film’s primary dogfight, the craft is absolutely stunning. Combining enormous efforts in historical restoration, unusually good visual effects for the era, and stunningly accurate model-making, the film is a true epic. But eventually, the Americans get a few planes up, and the film extends its significant craft into aerial combat, maneuvering, exploding, plunging, and plummeting through the clouds over Hawaii and inspiring Michael Bay to say, “Wouldn’t this all look great if it were much shakier?!”

Maybe not. But Tora! Tora! Tora! is amazing and still well worth the watch.

7. Dark Blue World – Foreign Films

Of course, there’s more to dogfighting than just the American Allied perspective, and foreign films have long given us the view from the other cockpit too. From Russia, there’s the wildly kinetic montage of the dogfights in Only Old Men Are Going to Battle. From Japan, Colonel Tateo Kato’s Flying Squadron and For Those We Love both have some scenes worth seeing, only to be topped by The Eternal Zero. But this time, it’s a lesser-known Czech film called Dark Blue World whose dogfights just can’t be beaten.

Dark Blue World tells the story of disbanded Czechoslovakian pilots who escaped after their country’s surrender to Germany and joined – and flew with – the British Royal Air Force. All of the film’s flight sequences are excellently done – brief and sparing, but always for maximum narrative impact. But it’s a mid-film escort mission – protecting a bomber with an engine out from four attacking Messerschmitts – that is the film’s action highlight.

Perfectly integrating individual character arcs into the overall tactics of the scene, the encounter balances the team’s growing camaraderie with continuing communication struggles to deliver a victory that feels genuinely hard-won.

The tension added by intercutting with an anxious control room is a welcome addition, while the combat itself deftly balances visual-effect flourishes atop mostly real and completely fantastic fighter footage to create a gripping piece of cinema.

6. The Bridges at Toko-Ri – Air-to-Ground

While not technically “dogfights” themselves, action sequences built around air-to-ground sorties trade in such a similar type of viewing pleasure that it would be crazy not to include any on this list. Sure, they’re not air-to-air, but they scratch the same itch.

Behind Enemy Lines opens with a slightly unrealistic but highly tense duel between Super Hornet and SAM-site. 633 Squadron sees an intrepid bombing run on a ferociously defended rocket-fuel factory. While the Dambursters… well… you’ll never guess what they do. However, the all-time greatest air-to-ground sequence has to be the enormous Korean War attack run in The Bridges at Toko Ri.

After a massive build-up to the third act set piece, characters and audiences alike have been set up to brace themselves for a soberingly dangerous attack-run on a series of impenetrably defended bridges. Expectations are high, and it’s hard to imagine that an aerial sequence shot with the technology of the ’50s could deliver on the promise.

And then… the bombing run starts. A squadron of 12 Grumman Panthers make their attack runs while supported by another squadron’s SEAD. Each run is beyond perilous – shot primarily in stunning POV, through clouds of practical pyrotechnics that are way too close for comfort.

And while it all looks astonishingly real, much of this sequence is actually model-work that was built on a 200-foot-long set at 1:12 scale. Led by model Panthers pulled on wires that were shot from an actual helicopter, the model work is almost indistinguishable from the aerial footage – an achievement that won the film a special effects Oscar. It’s all tied together by a fantastically immersive sound mix, making for a ground attack experience that is cinema’s closest thing to actually being there.

5. Top Gun – Cold War Era

Next up we’re turning back to dogfighting in the Cold War. And, yes, there’s a pretty obvious pick here, but is Top Gun really the best of the best?

Perhaps a better question is, what could we possibly pick instead? Maybe tagging one of the equally silly dogfights from Iron Eagle would make all three of you who religiously prefer it to Top Gun extremely satisfied. Or maybe the purposefully absurd aerial tactics of Hot Shots? Honestly, The Final Countdown’s one mini-dogfight might even be the best done of the bunch – it’s certainly some of the best-looking footage of the Tomcat there is out there. But with only World War II-era Japanese Zeros as opponents, it’s over just as soon as it starts.

We could look to another early Korean War film: the little known and much underappreciated Hunters, however… we just can’t do it. Obvious or no, we’re picking the final dogfight from Top Gun after all.

The list of things wrong with Top Gun’s depiction of aerial warfare is almost endless. The formations and the combat are way too close. The planes are not just within visual range, they’re practically within odor range. The maneuvering is a nonsensical sequence of aileron rolls. The pilots take their masks off in low-pressure environments. And the knobs and switches they use have nothing to do with what they say they’re using them for.

And yet… Where it’s bad, it’s silly, but where it’s good, it’s unforgettable. It’s extraordinarily entertaining and unbelievably badass. It reignited an entire genre of films and was the best piece of recruitment propaganda the Air Force never made. Top Gun is simply endlessly quotable, infinitely memorable, not-so-subtly homoerotic, and a really good time.

4. Area 88 – Animated

If you haven’t guessed by now, we strongly prefer aerial dogfights shot with real airplanes to those created in post. There’s just something lost in the CGI of it that animators haven’t quite figured out yet. Except, of course, when they’re animating the whole thing.

Once you cut free of reality, you’re free to imagine all different kinds of aerial insanities that live-action has deprived us of. Fighter planes vs aliens? Why not? Battling giant insects? Sure. A pig in a steampunk warplane? You bet.

The various Macross series have given us countless dogfights worth writing home about, Cowboy Bebop’s mad pursuit just crackles with jazzy intensity, Skycrawlers really gives a new meaning to the term “Flying Fortress,” and it’s beautiful, to boot. Paths of Hate mixes its beauty in with brutality in a wallpaper-worthy art style. But this time, we’re going with the insane opening dogfight at the beginning of the original Area 88.

Beginning with a haunting pre-dawn ingress, this dogfight is over seven minutes of animated fighter pilot insanity. Where else can you find a Tomcat flying alongside a Phantom, a Skyhawk, an Israeli Kfir, and two Hornets? Only in Area 88 – the fictional Middle Eastern mercenary air force base where you either fly or die.

It’s clearly absurd, but in a lot of ways, the movie is actually, unusually accurate. Area 88 is one of very few films to begin its dogfights with a Beyond-Visual-Range standoff and take the time for everyone to crank and beam and go defensive to defeat enemy missiles before finally going guns on in the merge. It’s got amazing animation, balls-to-the-wall action, and a ton of carnage. And it’s as good as any live-action dogfight on this list.

3. Blue Thunder – Helicopter

As far as we’re concerned, dogfighting aircraft don’t need to be fixed-wing. A helicopter can be just as good as an airplane. So, if choppers are more your speed, this slot is for you.

Firebirds is the classic here, as its rotorcraft is the fully Nic Cage-ian answer to Top Gun. TV’s Airwolf actually has some pretty insane flying that definitely isn’t OSHA compliant. Apocalypse Now has one of the best helicopter air-to-ground sequences ever, but that makes it an exception in a category of exceptions any way you slice it. For our whirlybird pick, we’re going with the death-defying, Gatling-gun-mounted, downtown LA showdown from Blue Thunder.

Blue Thunder’s extended final action sequence makes its way from a chase through the LA River with jaw-droppingly dangerous flying, to an absurd skirmish with two F-16s, to a final guns-hot showdown with an armed Hughes 500 in Downtown LA.

The footage is wild. The movie is wild. It’s like Columbia Pictures realized they had $100 million dollars left in their yearly helicopter budget and it was “spend it or lose it.” With shot after shot flying through live explosions three feet off the ground, the film is one helicopter fans – and dogfighting fans in general – just cannot miss.

2. Top Gun: Maverick – Modern Era

For our second to last pick, we arrive at the modern era with only fourth- and higher-gen fighters from here on out. And the options are… slim but improving. It turns out that the air forces worldwide are still a little touchy about loaning out $125-million-dollar aircraft.

We almost picked a dogfight from French film Les Chevaliers du ciel that features tons of gorgeous footage with actual Dassault Mirages. Les Chevaliers du ciel just nails everything, from the cinematography to the choreography to the edit, but something has happened since then. As of now, the new gold standard in actually-shooting-the-damn-things comes from none other than the climactic dogfight from Top Gun: Maverick.

Yes, the long-anticipated, much-delayed sequel to Tony Scott’s era-defining original pays off everything its years-long promo campaign has promised. Sure, Top Gun: Maverick’s formations and combat are still way too close, but the maneuvering is vastly more sophisticated than last time around, complete with out-of-plane maneuvers and map-of-the-Earth flying. And okay, fine, the dialogue can still be a little explain-y, but Joseph Kosinski’s action direction is crystal clear and polished. There is an unmistakable sense of the battlefield’s layout in every moment, whether they’re 30 feet off the deck or pulling through the clouds.

But when Maverick and Rooster climb into their warbird and take on the anonymous and menacingly-reiterated enemy “fifth-gen fighters,” what follows is five minutes of some of the finest combat flying cinema has ever seen. It’s got smart maneuvering that makes sense and has a big impact, clever tactics that change the shape of the battlefield, ammo management challenges that turn up the tension-searing visuals, and Earth-shaking sound design. It’s really good. In a movie that’s still fun and silly (although, sadly, not nearly as homoerotic as its predecessor), Top Gun builds to a climax that absolutely delivers.

1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Future (You Know What We Mean)

Closing us out at number one, having already arrived at present day, there’s nowhere left to go but the future. (And before you get started, we know Star Wars movies are in the past, but you know what we mean!) And here, unfortunately, we have to accept a little CGI, at least until Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos really start duking it out.

Here in the science fiction world, you’ve got AI fighter battles in Stealth, Alien battles in Independence Day, and a pretty fantastic showdown with drones in Oblivion. That said, two Tom Cruise films is more than enough for any one list.

As far as we can tell, all the best futuristic dogfights actually take place in the past. Way, way in the past. There’s the trench run that first proved to the world that epic space warfare was possible and worth making, before of course Return of the Jedi’s Battle of Endor one-upped it. There’s also the too-big-to-really-understand Battle of Exegol. But the Star Wars series hit the absolute sweet spot with Rogue One’s Battle of Scarif.

The skyward side of the Battle of Scarif is a massive, extended conflict over the clear objective to take down the shield gate, all in support of the greater strategic goal of getting the very plans that enabled the very trench run that invented the very genre of space combat back in A New Hope. Rogue One’s climactic battle is a perfect example of why it’s so important in action sequences to clearly connect the tactics to the strategy to the overarching narrative goal in every moment.

It’s a blitz to rush the gate before it closes, countered by a lockdown to prevent further intruders, countered by a bombing run to break the lock, countered by a scrambled squadron of TIE Fighters to interdict them, and on and on until the tactics culminate in a fittingly epic climax.

Rogue One finds the newest generation of Star Wars films pushing the envelope of VFX achievement to an almost photo-realistic degree, giving us the best-looking space action anyone has ever seen on screen, and it all feels like it really matters.

So what do you think? Disagree with any of our picks? Did we leave out any of your favorite dogfights? Let us know your favorites in the comments below.

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