The heroic escapades of brave pilots blazing across bullet-strewn skies have long provided inspiration at the movies. Having seen action across two World Wars and a variety of modern conflicts, Britain’s very own Royal Air Force has proven a rich source cinematic action, bravery and tragedy, both in the UK and Hollywood.
Established in 1918, the esteemed organisation has now entered into its centenary year. With that remarkable achievement comes a new documentary officially endorsed by the RAF’s leading welfare charity; the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, covering a century of the Royal Air Force.
As the film shows, for 100 years the RAF’s courage, perseverance and innovation has secured freedom, survival and safety for the many – at home and abroad. Since its infancy, the RAF has demonstrated the power behind its original mission: to embody an agile, adaptable, capable air force. The RAF is steadfast, always ready for action. It remains the agile, adaptable, and capable air force it set out to be 100 years ago Looking to the future, “through adversity to the stars”. Including extraordinary and unseen historical footage of WW1 and WW2 and narrated by Sir Martyn Lewis, 100 Years of the RAFpays tribute to the determination and courage our men and women take on in the theatres of war; to defend our freedom and bring relief to people in need.
To celebrate the film’s release we’re looking back to World War I, World War II and beyond – these are some of the very best films featuring the RAF in action.
The Way to the Stars (1945)
Penned by the illustrious playwright Terence Rattigan, The Way to the Starswas an adaptation of his play Flare Path (1942) which itself was based on his experiences as an RAF tail gunner in WWII. The film, set in 1940, looks at life on a British RAF base around the time of the Battle of Britain, as US forces begin to land on site. The film’s title is often incorrectly thought to be drawn from the RAF’s motto ‘Per ardua ad astra’, although the correct translation is‘through adversity to the stars’. In the US, it was released as Johnny in the Clouds, inspired by a poem that is recited to a fallen aviator in the film.
The Dam Busters (1955)
WWII epic The Dam Busters recreated the true story of Operation Chastise, in which a special squadron of RAF Lancashire bombers delivered aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis’ newly developed ‘bouncing bomb’ to destroy German dams. Michael Redgrave starred as the inventor of the ingenious bomb and Richard Todd played 617 Squadron Wing Commander Guy Gibson. The film, now rightly considered a British classic, inspired George Lucas so much, that the climactic battle in Star Wars, where a squadron of rebel X-wing fighters launches a daring mission to destroy the Death Star, is based heavily on The Dam Busters’ finale.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (to give it its full title) is the only film in this list not to deal with a historical event. Kubrick’s masterful political satire instead concerns the fictional joint efforts of US officials and an RAF pilot to recall a nuclear apocalypse, after a crazed US General orders a first strike on the Soviet Union. In the film, comedy legend Peter Seller’s plays three roles: US President, Lionel Mandrake of the RAF and the titular nuclear expert Dr Strangelove. Sellers was reportedly paid $1 million for his role (55% of the film’s budget) with Kubrick commenting, ‘I got three for the price of six’.
Battle of Britain (1969)
The first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces, and quite possibly the RAF’s greatest victory, Battle of Britain demanded something special for its big screen treatment, and that’s what it got with Guy Hamilton’s 1969 picture. Produced by Harry Saltzman, the legendary producer of the Bond films, stars including Sir Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw and Trevor Howard took on the roles of RAF heroes in the epic WWII battle to defeat their German rivals, the Luftwaffe. Despite its epic quality the spectacular flying sequences sent production costs soaring and the film failed to make its money back in theatres.
Aces High (1976)
While not technically an RAF film, Aces High has earned its place in the history of the RAF on screen as it concerns the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) in WWI – on 1 April 1918 the RFC was merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the RAF. The film is based on R.C. Sherriff’s famous play Journey’s End about Operation Michael, but moves action from the trenches to the skies. With a stellar cast of British acting talent including Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud and Christopher Plummer, this is one not to be missed.
Recent hit Dunkirk cranked up the tension in its portrayal of the evacuation of the British Army from the infamous French beach. Capturing the action from three perspectives, Tom Hardy portrays an RAF spitfire pilot who protects the land and sea forces from the skies, despite a shattered fuel gauge making his job even more perilous. Committed to limiting the need for computer generated effects, director Christopher Nolan used real aircraft, adapting them to look like period spitfires. Nolan also obtained a pair of genuine spitfire’s from the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, which can be seen landing on the beach in the film.
Signature Entertainment presents 100 Years of the RAF on DVD & Digital HD from 4th June