Aerial Filming in Star Wars

Aerial Filming in Star Wars

This is a first in a series focused on film and other mediums and their possible connections to the Star Wars saga, from a film-making viewpoint and a fans perspective.

When I examine the Star Wars saga, it is strictly from a fans angle. I will never claim to be an expert on its film-making style, nor will I try to attempt to contemplate the inner motivations of each character. I may try, and I may even get pretty close, but that’s not where my strengths lie. I am not a film critic. I have rarely recorded film outside my video camera on my iPhone. What I am however, is a fan of Star Wars. And like many of the things in life that interest me, whether it is music, a book, or a movie, I want to know what sparked the imagination; the creative juices flowing in the mind and heart of its creator; in this case George Lucas.

Before I get started I want to first say that being just a fan, I am not going to use any fancy film terminology or pretend I know what I am talking about. What will follow are various similarities I have noticed, with my untrained eye, in these films. You may ask why bother writing about something that I am not an expert on? Great question. Two reasons. First, if I am fascinated by these connections and inspirations, then there are thousands of others just as interested as I am. And perhaps they don’t have the means of an outlet. Well, here I am to let you know you’re not alone. Second, I know for a fact there has to be someone out there that knows much more about this than I, that can teach me. I’m always open to learn new things so when you’re done reading this, please comment with anything I’ve missed and teach me.

Okay let’s get started…

Speaking of inspirations, much of this particular blog is inspired by an article written by Tricia Barr entitled “An Ace in Space” from issue 165 of The Star Wars Insider, in which Tricia discusses the use of ace pilot archetypes, a relatively new archetype in Star Wars. Also mentioned within these pages are the three movies I will be comparing and contrasting to Star Wars; The Dawn Patrol, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and The Great Waldo Pepper. I want to focus specifically on the aerial combats and the aerial filming in each and how George Lucas used that filming style and brought it to new heights in space combats in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and beyond.

As the Wright Brothers first took flight in 1903, film was also in its infancy (Barr 28). With this new fascination with manned flight, it only seemed natural to want to catch it on film and put in movies. The Dawn Patrol (1938), starred Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, while a re-make, provided some of the greatest aerial combat ever filmed on camera. Much like the original 1930s version, The Dawn Patrol served as a grim WWI drama about the awesome death toll among air force flyers, which featured some splendid aerial photography (Cook 320). Many of the common clichés we now see in combat pilots were first developed in The Dawn Patrol, such as the white scarfs worn by the pilots, heavy drinking and devil-may-care attitude towards death, and chivalry between pilots. Top Gun much?

Again, as someone who has very little knowledge of filming, it amazes me how these scenes of aerial combat were filmed. I understand much of the films aerial combat scenes were used stock footage of actual wartime dogfights, and I’m sure the pre-dogfight flying was filmed in studio with backgrounds made to simulate flying. Near the film’s climax, Courtney, flying his Nieuport 28 with a top speed of 121 mph (Crosby 121), duels his German counterpart Von Richter. It is not hard to picture X-Wings and TIE Fighters in place of these WWI classics, battling high above the Death Star, or the moon of Endor, Trying to out maneuver each other to gain the advantage to get the killing shot.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) was a Korean War film starring William Holden, Mickey Rooney, and Grace Kelly. This movie especially is known along with The Dam Busters, to serve as the inspiration for George for the trench run on the Death Star in A New Hope. The climax of this film was really fun to watch, but at the same time it provided a realistic and unforgiving look at the terrors of ground attack runs made by those brave pilots. We see in the film from the pilot’s point of view inside the cockpit, the anti-aircraft flack being fired at them by opposing North Korean forces. A very similar scene was played out above the Death Star as the heavy turbolaser batteries were firing at the rebel pilots. As the group of F9F Panthers approach their target, the two bridges that span a mountain range, we hear a pilot warn, “Stand by for ground attack”. I couldn’t help but hear Red Leader say,

“Watch yourself! There’s a lot of fire coming from the right side of that deflection tower. (Hamill, Ford and Fisher)”.

All in all, the mission was a success in that the bridges were destroyed; however the allies suffered major losses. Something the rebel spies in Rogue One can identify with. The feel by the end of the film is one of pressing on during wartime, knowing the return flight isn’t always guaranteed, yet the job is done without hesitation. I really enjoyed watching the scenes aboard the aircraft carrier where the fighters were being prepped for take-off. The stock footage gave the film an air of authenticity.

Lastly, The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), starred Robert Redford as a barnstorming former WWI ace pilot who saw little action during wartime, due to being assigned as a flight instructor. To be honest I had never heard of this film until I read Tricia’s article, and I was not expecting much as I pressed “PLAY”. I was pleasantly surprised. The Great Waldo Pepper was an enjoyable film that displayed some really impressive aerial film-making. It’s ironic that Redford’s character and his flying partner were filmed while in air for the movies from another plane flying alongside with a camera man in the rear seat. I highly doubt, considering its close release to Star Wars, that this film was used in any capacity while George was planning out his space battles. Nonetheless, the aerial stunts and chase scene during the climax was an impressive feat in film-making. I almost forgot to mention, Waldo’s friends name is Ezra!

Like I said before, if you are curious about the roots of Star Wars please leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you have to say, and if you have another movie to recommend please let me know. And absolutely fill me in if you’re knowledgeable about aerial filming or filming of any kind.


Barr, Tricia. “An Ace in Space.” Star Wars Insider May/June 2016: 26-31. Print.

Cook, David A. A History of Film Narrative. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. Print.

Crosby, Francis. A Handbook of Fighter Aircraft. New York: Hermes House, 2002. Print.

Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film History. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949. Print.

Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. 1977. film.


Contact Eric at, on Twitter @EricOnkenhout, and on Facebook.

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