Aces High is a 1976 British-French war film directed by Jack Gold and starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter Firth, Christopher Plummer and Simon Ward. The screenplay was written byHoward Barker. As acknowledged in the opening credits, the film is based on the 1930s play Journey's End by R. C. Sherriff with additional material from the memoir Sagittarius Rising byCecil Lewis. It tells the story of a Royal Flying Corps squadron in the First World War during one week of battle, where the high death rate of pilots puts an enormous strain on those remaining.
The film is set in a one-week timeframe. It opens a year before the main action with fighter ace Major John Gresham (McDowell) speaking to a class of students at Eton public school in October 1916. One year later, a new recruit arrives at Gresham's base in France, 2nd Lt. Croft (Firth). Gresham had been his house captain at Eton and is also the boyfriend of his older sister. Gresham already relies on alcohol to cope with combat stress and continue flying. Now the strain of being responsible for this young recruit (a potential brother-in-law) is an additional burden. Croft has to learn how to survive not only in the air, but on the ground as well as he initially makes some minor mistakes in squadron etiquette.
The film follows Croft's week of rapid rite of passage from naive schoolboy to adult fighting soldier. We also see his initial hero worship of Gresham crumble as he learns the realities of active service, yet he regains a respect for Gresham and the stresses he has to cope with.
The film reaches its tragic conclusion when Croft finally scores his first air victory and seems to have made the leap in skills necessary to survive, but is suddenly killed in a collision with aGerman aircraft.
(Name in brackets for the equivalent character in Journey's End.)
- Malcolm McDowell as Major John Gresham (Capt. Dennis Stanhope)
- Christopher Plummer as Capt. "Uncle" Sinclair (Lt. Osborne)
- Simon Ward as Lieutenant Crawford (2nd Lt. Hibbert)
- Peter Firth as Lieutenant Stephen Croft (2nd Lt. Raleigh)
- David Wood as Lieutenant 'Tommy' Thompson (2nd Lt. Trotter)
- John Gielgud as Headmaster at Eton
- Trevor Howard as Lieutenant Colonel Silkin
- Richard Johnson as Major Lyle
- Ray Milland as Brigadier General Whale
- Christopher Blake as Lieutenant Roberts
- David Daker as Mess Corporal Bennett
- Barry Jackson as Corporal Albert Joyce
- Ron Pember as Lance Corporal Eliot
- Tim Pigott-Smith as Major Stoppard
The squadron depicted is loosely based on No. 56 Squadron, one of the famous SE5 squadrons. The airfield facilities, barracks and motor transport are authentic looking World War I era equipments and the planes flown, although not real SE5s but converted Stampe SV.4s, are similar enough and the camouflage used authentic. There is a real Avro 504 used in the film, while the Nieuport 17 plane, which 'Uncle' says is the one preferred by Gresham, is actually an SE5. The film's exterior scenes were mainly shot at various locations in Southern England and Spain, while indoor scenes were made at Pinewood Studios and St Katharine Docks.
Some scenes are based on real stories of the RFC, like the pilot who prefers to jump from his burning plane rather than being slowly roasted in his cockpit (no parachutes were issued during the conflict to Allied aircrew). The fatalistic mess room songs and the often juvenile, 'public school' attitudes of the young pilots are considered authentic portrayals of the time.
- The song Aces High by Iron Maiden is named after and inspired by the film, although takes place during World War II, whereas the film takes place in World War I. Iron Maiden frequently name songs after war films.
- The episode of Blackadder Goes Forth entitled Private Plane reuses scenes from the film during the flying sequence.