Aces High (1976) British WWI Air Combat Movie

I was curious to watch Aces High as it is one of the few WWI air combat movies we have. I did remember vaguely that some critics didn’t like it at all and wanted to find out for myself. I had the feeling it might not be as good as Der rote Baron aka The Red Baron although that is decidedly more of a guilty pleasure than a movie providing historical accuracy. I was right. Aces High isn’t even remotely as good as Der rote Baron and certainly not on the same level as The Blue Max which depicts a fascinating if revolting character. Unfortunately, it could have been good. It’s a narrow miss. What is particularly annoying is the fact that the flight scenes and the contrast of the combat on the ground and in the air is shown very well. It also shows once more the complacency and inadequacies of the high command. While their pilots are shot down one by one, they sit together, eating, laughing, drinking and gossiping and even deny them parachutes because that would make them week in battle. The movie doesn’t spare us and shows one particularly chilling episode in which we see a pilot falling to a certain death that might have been prevented if he had been given a parachute.

The story is told in a few sentences. Young Lt Croft (Peter Firth) arrives in France after barely 14 hours of flying practice. The CO of the base he has been assigned to is his brother-in-law, Major Gresham (Malcolm McDowell), a man he admires incredibly. He finds Gresham extremely changed. Disillusioned, hardened, distant and a full-blown alcoholic. The rest of the lot is not much better; either they drink or they are shell-shocked. The only nice and cool-headed one seems to be an older officer, Capt. “Uncle” Sinclair (Christopher Plummer).

Gresham cannot spare young Croft and has to take him on dangerous missions right away. The young man enjoys every minute of it. He is naive and enthusiastic.

You will probably think that this doesn’t sound too bad, I agree, it doesn’t but it still isn’t a good movie. Aces High has a big problem with its characters. Apart from Christopher Plummer’s character, they are uninteresting, flat and two-dimensional cardboard figures. This is disappointing because, as said, the air combat scenes are decent, the planes are decent and there is one incidence in which they make a trip to the front line and see a group of blinded soldiers that is quite harrowing. I’m afraid, I can’t rate this any higher than 3/5.

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14 thoughts on “Aces High (1976) British WWI Air Combat Movie

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    Thanks for the review. I had not seen the movie for about thirty years and remember it fondly. It was one of the first movies I videotaped and then the videotape was destroyed later. I have been trying to get a copy of it unsuccessfully. Your review will make me feel better about not being able to see it. I guess we sometimes remember things too fondly.

    • You are welcome. There are bits and pieces that are quite good but as a whole it doesn’t work. And the actor is so off-putting. He was perfect for Clockwork Orange.

    • Tripaneitagain says:

      Aces high has the best ever war film title music, “Luftwaffe” march. Worth watching for that alone. Never mind looking for great acting, you have to understand what the writing of this tale is about.

  2. warmoviebuff says:

    It suddenly appeared on Netflix instant play so I got to watch it after waiting two decades. Have to admit my memories were too fond. The acting is indeed bad. Especially by Peter Firth who places the young replacement. The flying scenes are pretty good and obviously not CGI. I found the attitude of the pilots between missions – the drinking, singing by the piano, carousing – to be realistic. WWI pilots did laugh in the face of a limited life span. They also shook off losses in a seemingly insensitive way. However, it was too simplistic to have two pilots suffering from combat fatigue and all the rest showing no signs at all of it. The pilots were either bitter and disillusioned or chipper.

    The movie does show that there was a gulf between the officers and enlisted which would be authentic for the RAF. Heck, they treated the captured German pilot better than their own mechanics.

    I’m sure you noted that the observation balloon observer had a parachute and the fixed wing crews did not. This is accurate.

    As to the brass, their crassness is well documented in WWI films to the point where anything they do is terrible. But if you think about it, sacrificing one recon plane to get pictures of a German sector and potentially save the lives of thousands is not a bad command decision.

    Another accuracy is French girls were loose. LOL

    • Dear friend, what would you know about it (last comment)? Is this the time to tell me something that you cannot otherwise? 🙂 I’m really joking.
      Let’s get serious again. Come to think of it, maybe this could be a great remake opportunity. I’m thinking of a cross between The Blue Max and this. There are good elements in this one that’s why I thought it was disappointing. It had a lot of potential… It’s really a character problem,they are too flat.

  3. warmoviebuff says:

    So far, all I know about French women is what I learned from “Aces High” and the newer “All Quiet…” (another reason I prefer the newer version) Based on this research, I feel I can confidently label all French women as being easy, especially during wartime. (Coincidentally, the French army is also easy during wartime. Get it?)

    I need to see The Blue Max. It has been decades. You like air combat movies. Have you seen”The Great Waldo Pepper”?

  4. […] War Movie, WWI) (Aces High allaboutwarmovies.com […]

  5. […] Aces High (1976). An air combat movie, not one of the best but not bad either. Less character driven than the last one. Review […]

  6. phenson87 says:

    I have very fond movies of this film. When I was young I saw it many times and granted youth and age does taint one’s memory. That being said, I still don’t think it’s that bad. Malcolm McDowall’s performance still seems reasonable. Aces High is actually an adaptation of a stage play (which I have seen) called Journey’s end. Not surprisingly most of the action takes place in the trenches. I think that adaptation wise the transfer of story works well and much can be recognised for the original stage play. It’s worth a watch if you ever happen to get the opportunity to watch on the stage.

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