Aces High (film)

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Aces High
Aces High UK poster.jpg
Original British film poster
Directed by Jack Gold
Produced by Benjamin Fisz
Jacques Roitfeld
Screenplay by Howard Barker
Based on Journey's End 
by R. C. Sherriff
Starring Malcolm McDowell
Christopher Plummer
Simon Ward
Peter Firth
Music by Richard Hartley
Carlo Rustichelli
Cinematography Gerry Fisher
Edited by Anne V. Coates
S. Benjamin Fisz Productions
Les Productions Jacques Roitfeld
Distributed by EMI Films (UK)
Release dates
  • 19 May 1976 (1976-05-19) (UK)
  • 8 June 1977 (1977-06-08) (France[1])
Running time
114 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget ₤1,250,000[2]

Aces High is a 1976 Anglo-French war film directed by Jack Gold and starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter Firth, Christopher Plummer and Simon Ward. The screenplay was written by Howard 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 by Cecil Lewis. The film moves the action from the trenches to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). However, many characters are very recognisable (the idealistic officer whose sister is the girlfriend of a more senior officer who drinks too much, the neuralgia suffering officer accused of funking). 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.


In a one-week timeframe, life at the front in a RFC squadron is documented. The real story begins a year before with fighter ace Major John Gresham (Malcolm McDowell) speaking to a class of pupils at Eton College in October 1916. One year later, a new recruit arrives at Gresham's base in France, 2nd Lt. Croft (Peter 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 makes some minor mistakes in squadron etiquette.

Croft's week of rapid rite of passage from naive schoolboy to adult fighting soldier takes place. His initial hero worship of Gresham crumbles as he learns the realities of service at the front, yet he regains a respect for Gresham and the stresses he has to cope with.

When Croft finally scores his first air victory and seems to have made the leap in skills necessary to survive, he is suddenly killed in a collision with a German aircraft. While looking out of his office window, Gresham sees an apparition of Croft returning from the battle field uninjured, which fades away. Gresham then orders for the new recruits to be sent in for his inspection.


(Name in brackets for the equivalent character in Journey's End.)


S.E.5a (200 h.p. geared Hispano-Suiza with 4-bladed propellor) of No. 56 Squadron RAF.

The film's exterior scenes were mainly shot in Southern England and Spain, while indoor scenes were made at Pinewood Studios, St Katharine Docks and Eton College, with principal photography shot at Booker Airfield, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. [3] The squadron depicted, No. 76 Squadron, (which was actually stationed in England throughout the war and never saw combat during WW1), is loosely based on No. 56 Squadron, one of the notable S.E.5 squadrons. The airfield facilities, barracks and motor transport are authentic looking First World War era equipment and the aircraft flown, although not real S.E.5s but converted Stampe SV.4s, similar enough and the camouflage used authentic. There is a real Avro 504 used in the film. [Note 1][4] A Fokker E.III Eindecker reproduction makes an anachronistic appearance when it is brought down intact and its pilot given a toast by his British counterparts. This Eindecker reproduction may be the same replica that appeared in Crooks and Coronets in 1969.

Popular culture[edit]

The song "Aces High" by Iron Maiden is named after and inspired by the film, although takes place during the Second World War, whereas the film takes place in the First World War. Iron Maiden frequently name songs after war films.[citation needed]

The episode of Blackadder Goes Forth titled "Private Plane" reuses scenes from the film during the flying sequence.[citation needed]


Film historian Michael Paris saw Aces High as another of the period films that attempted to "de-mystologise" warfare. [5] Film archivist and historian Stephen Pendo saw the "good aerial photography by Gerry Fisher" as the strength of a film that played more as "standard fare".[6]



  1. ^ The Nieuport 17, which "Uncle" says is the one preferred by Gresham, is actually an S.E.5.


  1. ^ "Le Tigre du ciel." EncycloCiné. Retrieved: 16 March 2015.
  2. ^ "Boost for studios."The Guardian, 9 July 1975, p. 5.
  3. ^ Orriss 2013, p 133.
  4. ^ Carlson 22. p. 50.
  5. ^ Paris 1995, p. 46.
  6. ^ Pendo 1985, p. 115.


  • Carlson, Mark. Flying on Film: A Century of Aviation in the Movies, 1912–2012. Duncan, Oklahoma: BearManor Media, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59393-219-0.
  • Orriss, Bruce W. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War I. Los Angeles: Aero Associates, 2013. ISBN 978-0-692-02004-3.
  • Paris, Michael. From the Wright Brothers to Top gun: Aviation, Nationalism, and Popular Cinema. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-7190-4074-0.
  • Pendo, Stephen. Aviation in the Cinema. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1985. ISBN 0-8-1081-746-2.

External links[edit]