Aces High (film)

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.

Aces High
Original British film poster
Directed byJack Gold
Produced by
Screenplay byHoward Barker
Based onJourney's End (play)
by R. C. Sherriff
Music by
CinematographyGerry Fisher
Edited byAnne V. Coates
  • S. Benjamin Fisz Productions
  • Jacques Roitfeld (Les Productions)
Distributed byEMI Films (UK)
Release date
  • 19 May 1976 (1976-05-19) (UK)
  • 8 June 1977 (1977-06-08) (France[1])
Running time
114 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

Aces High moves the action from the trenches to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The film depicts 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. Many characters are still 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 or cowardly fright).


In a one-week timeframe, life at the front in a RFC squadron is documented. The background story begins a year before, in October 1916, with fighter ace Major John Gresham (Malcolm McDowell) speaking to a class of pupils at Eton College. One year later, a new recruit, 2nd Lt. Croft (Peter Firth), arrives at Gresham's temporary base in northern France. Gresham had been his house captain at Eton and is also the boyfriend of his older sister.

Gresham relies on alcohol to cope with the ongoing combat stress and to continue flying. The strain of being responsible for this young recruit (and potential impact on his sister) is an additional burden, causing him to drink even more. 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-long rite of passage, from naive schoolboy to adult fighting soldier, is shown. His initial hero worship of Gresham crumbles, as he learns the realities of service at the front, but he gains a respect for Gresham and the stresses with which he has to cope.

Shortly after Croft scores his first air victory and seems to have made the leap in skills necessary to survive, he is unexpectedly killed in an air-to-air 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.)

  • 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
  • Gilles Behat as Beckenaur
  • Elliot Cooper as Wade
  • Jacques Maury as Ponnelle
  • Jeanne Patou as French Singer
  • Pascale Christophe as Croft's Girlfriend
  • John Serret as French Colonel
  • Gerard Paquis as French Officer
  • Jean Driant - Corporal Dressing Station
  • Judy Buxton as French Girl
  • Tricia Newby as French Girl
  • Penny Irving as French Girl
  • Roland Viner as Officer
  • Steven Pacey as Officer
  • Kim Lotis as Officer Batman
  • Jane Anthony as Katherine
  • Evelyn Cordeau as French Girl
  • Paul Henley as Replacement
  • David Arnold as Replacement
  • Paul Rosebury as Replacement
  • James Cormack as School Captain


Producer Benny Fisz had served in the RAF in World War Two. He pitched the idea of remaking Journey's End as a plane movie to Jack Gold. Gold was initially wary but then agreed to do it after Howard Barker revised his script. Gold had a very good reputation among actors at the time, and on the strength of his involvement, Malcolm McDowell agreed to star.[3]

Director Jack Gold said he was attracted to the film because "That was innocence, extreme youth, marred lives of these pilots who knew they are going to die. And we could show not only chivarly and bravery but also the fear."[4]

"What interests me is human relationships," said Gold. "Aces High has aerial battle scenes but they're not just thrown in. It has songs but they're not just cue music. They do tell something about the characters."[3]

The movie was co-financed by EMI Films.[2]


Filming took seven weeks with one week for rehearsal.[3]

The exterior scenes in Aces High 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.[5] 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][6]

The "German" aircraft in the film were all adapted post-First World War aircraft except for a replica Fokker E-III which appears in combat with SE-5s. In reality the two types were separated in war service by more than a year. Gresham's hits on the Fokker EIII result in a stream of black sump oil, also improbable as the real Fokker EIII was a rotary-engined machine which was lubricated by castor oil in the engine's fuel, similar to modern two-stroke engines. It had no circulating oil or sump. Production stills of Malcolm McDowell (Gresham) showed him posing with a Bristol M.1C but this type does not appear in the film. A Fokker E.III Eindecker reproduction makes an appearance when it is brought down intact and its pilot given a toast by his British counterparts.[7]

Director Jack Gold later recalled "It was very difficult to obtain those planes. Sometimes we used models or archive footage. Action sequences in the air were very difficult to make and they were also very much tied with story. I had great assistant in Derek Cranknell and great specialist for special efffects."[4]

Some scenes are based on real stories of the RFC, such as the pilot who prefers to jump from his burning aircraft 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 film reused aerial sequences from The Blue Max and Von Richthofen and Brown.[8]

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.[9]

The episode of Blackadder Goes Forth titled "Private Plane", during the aerial sequence, reuses scenes from Aces High.[10]


Film historian Michael Paris saw Aces High as another of the period films that attempted to "de-mystologise" warfare.[11] 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".[12]

The film was not seen in the US until screened by HBO in 1979.[13]



  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. Mills, Bart (1 November 1975). "Riders in the sky". The Guardian. p. 8M.
  4. "Jack Gold: Independence is freedom to execute in personal style". United Film.
  5. Orriss 2013, p 133.
  6. Carlson 22. p. 50.
  7. Beck 2016, p. 10.
  8. "Review: 'Aces High'." History on Film. Retrieved: 29 June 2017.
  9. "92 Squadron - Geoffrey Wellum." RAF website, 2 March 2009. Retrieved: 29 June 2017.
  10. "Trivia: 'Private Plane'." Internet Movie Database Retrieved: 29 June 2017.
  11. Paris 1995, p. 46.
  12. Pendo 1985, p. 115.
  13. At the Movies Buckley, Tom. New York Times 12 Oct 1979: C6.


  • Beck, Simon D. The Aircraft Spotter's Film and Television Companion. Jefferson, North Carolina, 2016. ISBN 978-1-476-66349-4.
  • 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.
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