Recommended Films

Ace Eli & Rodger of the Skies

This is going to make me very unpopular but I think this story is the most accurate ever told about the Barnstormers of the 1920’s. Cliff Robertson stars in this over-looked, aviation tale originally written by an up and coming Screenwriter named Steven Spielberg (who only had the TV movie “Duel” to his credit at that time.) However, the final product was called such a “… mess of unexplored moods and loose ends…” that Spielberg, along with all the original Producers and Director John Erman, had their names removed and replaced with pseudonyms (in some, but not all, versions!)

Don’t know why, because – to my mind – “Ace Eli & Rodger of the Skies” is one of the most honest portrayals of the real reason most 1920’s Barnstormers were out there. Not for the love of flying (like Bach’s Barnstormers in Nothing By Chance {shot the same year!}), but – in the words of Cliff Robertson’s Ace Eli, “…because the whole damn thing is about me.” As far as I’m concerned, this is a very interesting, non-standard take on the whole Barnstormer legend, with great flying sequences that more than make up for any “unexplored moods and loose ends.” (Watch also for Bernadette Peters first screen appearance!) GN

Aces High

While purportedly based on R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End and Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis, I can’t help but fell that Malcolm McDowell’s lead has more than a touch of Goshawk Squadron’s Wooley in him (released just 6 years previous.) Not a great film, but well worth seeing as it was one of the first modern-day movies to paint The Great War in more honest terms. GN

The Battle of Britain

It was my 21st birthday, my parents had flown Michelle and me out to Vancouver, and they said I could go anywhere I wanted in celebration. “To the premiere of Battle of Britain,” I immediately responded. I noticed a glance pass between my parents then they smiled and said, “Of course.” In retrospect, how I wish I hadn’t asked that particular favour. My Mum & Dad stayed in London during the Blitz and the Battle of Britain is such a good film, that my mother was in tears by the time it was over. Sigh. Such is the self-centredness of youth.

I think my mother’s reaction speaks volumes about the movie. This wasn’t a simple “entertainment,” The Battle of Britain was a blue-chip feature, produced at great financial and personal cost by James Bond Producer Harry Saltzman, and Benjamin Fisz. There is no CGI in this film. They dug out every flying, near-flying or non-flying Spitfire & Hurricane they could lay their hands on. And when that wasn’t enough, they made plywood mock-ups (one of which now resides in “The Tiger Boys” collection at Guelph Air Park in Canada.) The Producers also put together a 1968 version of the wartime Luftwaffe by “drafting” the Spanish Air Force versions of Messerschmitts and Heinkel 111’s. All aircraft were powered by Merlin engines, but that’s a very small price to pay for the overall authenticity.

This is a tremendous film that truly gives you a taste of what The Battle of Britain was really all about. But surely the movie’s greatest success is in resurrecting the reputation of Sir Hugh “Stuffy” Dowding and clearly placing the success of the Battle on his broad shoulders. (Dowding was dumped as soon as the Battle ended and was replaced with his “rival,” Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who supported the purportedly unwieldy “Big Wing” {initiated by my “hero,” Douglas Bader}.)

When I made my one and only trip “home” to England for my 50th birthday, we went to Westminster Abbey and I was pleased – and deeply touched – to discover that both Sir Dowding and Sir Laurence Olivier (who played Dowding with such conviction in the film) are both interred there … just feet apart. Quite appropriate to my way of thinking.

Lest we forget. GN

The Blue Max

This film holds the distinction of spending many years as the most successful war movie of all time. It’s long since lost that title, and yet this tale of George Peppard’s “common man” fighting a personal battle against Germany’s “Aristocrat-pilots” in addition to the enemy (that would be us) still holds up quite nicely, some 43 years after its release. GN

Captains of the Clouds

This pretty-close-to-the-truth movie tells the story of a group of Canadian Bush Pilots who sign up for the war, only to discover they are too old to fight and will be kept in Canada as Flight Instructors. With James Cagney in the lead, you know he’ll find a way to get over there … but the bulk of the movie is shot on location at British Commonwealth Air Training Schools in Canada – and WW1 hero, Billy Bishop, even does a cameo as himself. Not a great film. Not a bad one. But a fascinating look, nonetheless, at the inner workings of Canada’s B.C.A.T.P. “Aerodrome of Democracy”; the extraordinary institution that turned out so many of WW2’s pilots & aircrew. GN

The Dambusters

Second in the trilogy of great British War films that emerged in the mid-fifties. The Dambusters is far and away the most well-known, and the telling of the legendary Ruhr Dam raids by 617 Squadron must be considered one of the greatest war films of all time. It’s astoundingly accurate for a movie (though the secret of “the spinning bomb” was still classified and had to be blacked out before the film could be released). You can’t help but be touched by Director Michael Anderson’s decision to take time in his portrayal of this film. The long wait before departing on the mission is so accurately depicted that you find yourself just as jumpy as the crew when the time finally comes to leave. And Anderson’s achingly long shots of empty tables, empty beds and items left behind by men who knew they would probably not return adds a pathos to this film that is stunning for its time … and makes it one for the ages. If you want to know what it was like to go through the hell of a WW2 Bombing raid, this is a must-see movie. GN

Dark Blue World (Czech)

I stumbled onto this 2001 Czech film on cable TV and am glad I did as I may never have heard of it otherwise. Dark Blue World tells the story of two Czech pilots who escape the Nazi invasion, make their way to England and become fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain. This is a very dark film and more than a third takes place in the prison camp where our lead is imprisoned after the war is over (his native Czechoslovakia – now Communist – arrests him upon his return for “colluding with Capitalists.” Nevertheless, this is a very real film that looks at the war from a totally different point of view … And the flying sequences are amazing! GN

The Dawn Patrol

The archetypal WW1 tale of two friends caught up in the hell of early aerial warfare. Probably the best work ever by David Niven (and Errol Flynn is no slouch either.) GN


Now that Jeff Bridges has won the Academy Award as Best Actor (not to mention The Golden Globes), I guess we can finally stop calling him “The most under-appreciated Actor of our generation.” But that was definitely the case back in 1993 when I learned “The Dude” had starred in a movie titled Fearless, (the very same nickname I’ve been given), so I couldn’t wait to see it.

Then I learned the plot involved an Air Crash Survivor.

With my own ultralight-crash 11 years in the past, I didn’t think that information would affect me … but I couldn’t help notice that my interest in viewing Fearless evaporated in a nano-second.

When the film came out on VHS (we’re talking 1994), and it was impossible to miss at our local video store. I remember my heart starting to race the moment I saw the cover art, which annoyed me, so I rented it —“Just to get this foolishness over with.”

I was expecting some sort of action/adventure flick. But with Peter Weir in the Director’s seat, Jeff Bridges giving the performance of his life, brilliant work by Rosie Perez, and a Screenplay written by Rafael Yglesias—the same man who authored the novel on which Fearless is based—I should have known better.

From the very first frame of this film, you realize you’re about to watch something exceptional, though I had no idea just how special it would be for me. Read the rest of this review GN

Hell’s Angels

The epic Howard Hughes movie, immortalized by its recent re-telling in “The Aviator.”

Another harrowing tale of WW1 aerial warfare, shot long before the invention of CGI (resulting in the deaths of two pilots and a mechanic who failed to bail out before the crash of a German Gotha bomber). GN

Mrs. Miniver

My Mother went through the blitz and she hates this film. I didn’t and I love it. Perhaps because it helps me understand my parents just a little better. Perhaps because it made me realize it wasn’t just fighter pilots who won The Battle of Britain – it was every man, woman & child who had the guts to stay in Britain, take whatever the Luftwaffe threw at them and carry on “Business as Usual.” An extraordinary film that makes me realize just how many people I owe for my life. GN

Nothing by Chance

Okay … so I left this film until last for a couple of reasons:

It’s almost impossible to find a copy (though there are rumours of a soon-to-be-released DVD … and an Oshkosh reunion???)

I’m in it, so it’s pretty hard to be impartial.

In the months to come, I’ll tell the whole story of this film’s shoot, but for now let me say:

When Richard Bach decided to make a movie out of his wonderful book, Nothing By Chance he convinced his friend, Hugh Downs to produce and narrate the film, then set about bringing on board all the pilots he had barnstormed with in real life.

I almost passed out when Bach invited me to be one of his “Magnificent Seven,” but as it meant getting a U.S. Commercial License, I agonizingly had to turn him down.

(Sidebar: I’ve always been afraid that if I got a Commercial, I would do nothing else with my life but fly … and I knew, deep down, that I was supposed to be a Writer, so I refused to get one … if that makes any sense at all.)

The following morning (after a long, sleepless night), Bach phoned back to say he’d been re-working the script and now needed a “Barker”… someone to load passengers and be “the voice” of The Great American Flying Circus. He added that it would be nice if that person was a Canadian and – did I know anyone?

It meant a ground job, but how could I say “No” to that?

So, in the summer of 1973, The Great American Flying Circus set off – with a string of Winnebago-laden, Hollywood film crews following along below – and Barnstormed its way across the American Mid-West.

As Bach demanded the film be shot “as it happened,” with no set-ups (other than one notable exception), Nothing By Chance ends up as a very lyrical, very beautiful, Theatrical Documentary. It was loved by pilots, but with very little action (other than one notable exception) it failed to hold the attention of a general audience.

Nevertheless, NBC does portray–quite accurately–what happened that summer, and what it really means to be a Barnstormer (a Bachian Barnstormer, whose participants are out there for very aesthetic reasons … with one notable exception.)

Recommended for people who like Barnstorming, old Biplanes (Travel Airs), Richard Bach … or me! GN

The One That Got Away

You may not have heard of the third in the mid-fifties trilogy of great British war movies, and there’s a good reason for that. The One That Got Away, brilliantly portrayed by Hardy Kruger, tells the true story of the one and only German POW who escaped from a Canadian prisoner of war camp and made his way back to Germany during the Second World War. I have to warn you – there isn’t much flying in this film, but Kruger’s Franz von Werra more than makes up for that with his charismatic smile and the sense of brute determination he infuses into his character. Without giving too much away (the title pretty much does that), in a strange twist of fate, when von Werra finally does manage to escape, it’s to neutral America (in the days before Pearl Harbour). But that’s not the ending. The super at the conclusion of the film tells the real story … but I’m not about to give that away. GN

Reach For The Sky

I’d better admit here – this film version of Paul Brickhill’s novel shaped my life. I read the book when I was 6. Saw the movie for the first time when I was 7. And I must have seen it well over a hundred times since then. When I was younger, I thought Douglas Bader was the reason this film had such an impact on my life (and he was – unquestionably – a huge part of that. It is, after all, his story.) But as I grew older, I had to wonder if it wasn’t Kenneth More’s dazzling portrayal that touched me so deeply … or Gilbert Lewis’s brilliant direction … or John Addison’s soaring score. When I became a Screenwriter, I suddenly realized the whole superb film had emerged from the minds of collaborators, Paul Brickhill, Lewis Gilbert & Vernon Harris. So – when all is said and done – who do I thank for this film that has touched my soul, and helped me find courage in my darkest hours, more than half a century after I first saw it? The answer, of course is … All Of Them. GN

Der Rote Baron (German)

A very recent German film based roughly (very roughly) on the life of “The Red Baron.” Riddled with inaccuracies and cursed by the use of CGI (even ground-bound spinning propellers were digitally added {to make sure nobody accidentally walked into one!}) Nevertheless – if viewed as a work of pure fiction – this is actually quite an enjoyable film. And I’d see it again in a second if for no other reason than the shock of listening to the song “Open Skies” playing over the closing credits. This great song, by Irish group, Reamonn, so surprised me that I was in tears by the time it ended. One of the great Aviation songs of all time … and it was never even released as a single! (But, you can hear it on YouTube.) GN

Sink The Bismarck

Reach For The Sky director Lewis Gilbert, and star Kenneth More, team up again in this account of the sinking of the German battleship, Bismarck. This time, More plays a fictional character. But the story itself never wanders far from the truth. And some of the most shocking sequences in the movie centre around the seemingly-impossible attacks on “the world’s most powerful battleship” by squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm’s obsolete Fairey Swordfish biplanes. How they managed to not only survive (despite the film’s interpretation, not one Swordfish was shot down!), but also cripple the monster is utterly beyond me. But that’s what they did. And Bismarck’s fate was the direct result of those stunningly brave pilots’ actions. GN


Also known as “The First of The Few,” this film features Leslie Howard in the role of R.J. Mitchell, who struggles against bureaucratic blindness – and his own failing health – to design, then build, the airplane that will go on to win The Battle of Britain (though, in truth, the Hawker Hurricane fought off the brunt of the attack.) GN

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

A classic comedy about the early pioneering days of Aviation, with over-the-top performances by just about everyone. GN

Von Richtofen & Brown

Okay. This is an even worse telling of the downing of the Red Baron. But I had to add it because my Nothing By Chance “co-stars” Richard Bach & Chris Cagle both flew in it (Darling Lili as well!) Watch it for the flying (and try not to throw things at the TV whenever Von R or Brown are on screen.) GN

Movies to Avoid


Sigh. This is a tough one.

As I write these words, this big-budget-feature-take on the life of Amelia Earhart (starring Hillary Swank, Richard Gere & Ewan McGregor), has just opened to dismal reviews. 79% negative according to Rotten Tomatoes, a movie review web site.

With two Oscars under her belt and an Executive Producer hat perched on her head, it’s hard to imagine Ms. Swank coming up with such a dog. But what do you say about a film that hires three female pilots to fly, then won’t even allow them to taxi their airplanes?

Those jobs were given to men instead.

I know this is true because a) I was there when it happened, and b) Why Fly partner, Michelle Goodeve, was one of the three women sought out and asked to fly in the film.

When I discovered the decision, I was so angry, I walked off the film. Michelle is a pro, so she finished out the day … but she was just as furious. I can’t/won’t speak for the other two women–they have their own points of view.

But how a film about Amelia Earhart, starring a woman, produced by a woman and directed by a woman would allow this to happen–in a scene where Amelia/Swank is passionately talking about the need to accept female pilots as equals–is, for me, nothing less than shameful.

It was my full intention to publically boycott this film–loudly. But then Michelle heard that the head of the Ninety Nines was worried a boycott might keep away young girls who would otherwise see Amelia and be inspired to become pilots themselves.

And as much as I loathe saying it … the 99s and Michelle …had a valid point.

So I’ll hold my tongue … but I’ll be damned if I’ll watch the bloody thing.

Besides … it appears “karma” took care of the problem for me.

Probably best if you make up your own minds on this one. GN

Fly Boys

This one is worth an article all on its own (especially as Russ Munson, The Widget and I almost ruined the film’s Oshkosh premiere). Suffice it to say that this CGI driven movie – made with a great deal of passion and dedication by Director Tony Bill (a personal friend of several Why Fly Contributors) – just doesn’t hit the mark. When I think that Goshawk Squadron could have been made for the same (or less) money, it makes me want to weep. But – hey … that’s just my point of view. Others’ opinions may vary. GN

Pancho Barnes (Valerie Bertinelli Version)

Pancho Barnes, one of America’s greatest Aviatrix, was many things, but one of them was not what you would describe as “beautiful.” She was a big, tough woman so when you think of possible actors to play her in a movie, Roseanne, Kathy Bates or even Rosie O’Donnell come to mind. The last person you’d think to cast is Valerie Bertinelli, and yet that’s exactly who got the part in this 1988, made-for-TV movie. Do I really have to say much more? Surely that casting choice alone speaks volumes as to the way the real-life Pancho Barnes story was told in this purported biopic.

If it weren’t for some excellent air to air footage of some really interesting antique airplanes, including the original “Woody” Tiger Moth (a replica is now owned and flown by The Tiger Boys) there’d be no reason to watch this film at all. If you are unfortunate enough to rent it, keep your finger hovering over “fast-forward” and be ready to use it once the planes leave the stage. GN

(Sidebar: A new documentary, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club, has just been completed. Watch for a review on Why Fly in the near future.) GN

Waldo Pepper

Okay. It’s really unfair of me to say Waldo Pepper is a movie to avoid (especially as I fly several of the Tiger Moths used in that film for “The Tiger Boys Museum.”) It’s not really that bad a film (though it made the fatal box office mistake of having Robert Redford fail to save the girl). After all – in the era before CGI – it used real airplanes and includes some amazing sequences, including Robert Redford really walking on a wing (imagine how insurance companies would react to that these days!) And the spectacular ditching of a Tiger Moth should be mandatory viewing for any pilot who’s ever considered putting a fixed gear airplane in the drink – and this Tiger had the wheels removed!!! (Man, does that plane stop in a hurry. And in this case, the pilot was cushioned by foam!)

In the end, my reasons for giving thumbs down to this movie are really petty. It came out within a few weeks of “Nothing By Chance” and killed all possibilities of our real Barnstorming movie finding an audience.

Grrr.  Mutter. Grumble …

But – yeah, it’s not so bad … so I guess you can see it (unless Nothing By Chance comes out on DVD). GN

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