Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after you’ve seen and/or if you like the top-grossing release of 1986: Top Gun.
Despite its monumental legacy and the obvious attempts to ape the success of Top Gun, there is really no other movie like it. That’s why it was such a success upon its release in 1986 and why it has remained such a unique and iconic example of star-driven action cinema of its time. Still, Top Gun was not born out of nothingness — or even just the California magazine article that inspired its story. Movies about fighter pilots in particular go back to the early years of cinema, to the dawn of aerial combat.
And it is fighter pilot movies that make up the majority of this edition of Movie DNA since there’s not much else to highlight when it comes to the ancestry of Top Gun. Well, there are the prior works of people involved in its production. Tom Cruise was a military academy cadet in Taps (1982) and played opposite fellow Top Gun cast members John Stockwell and Rick Rossovich in Losin’ It (1983). Kelly McGillis got her part thanks to her work in Witness (1985). Some of composer Harold Faltermeyer’s Thief of Hearts score was re-used in Top Gun…
And, of course, most notable of all, director Tony Scott had made a commercial for Saab in 1984 (“Nothing on Earth Comes Close”) that looks like an intentional calling card for his being hired to helm Top Gun.
But once the aerial military movies start and never stop below, don’t skim over those recommendations just thinking this is a list of as many pilot pictures as I could mention. Every one of these titles has some significance to their inclusion and relevance to Top Gun. Believe me, there are so many more films I didn’t select (I’m sure I’ll hear about it from any aviators out there), including many that I wanted to — though I do mention a lot of them as additional suggested viewing alongside the specific spotlighted movies because a lot in this sub-genre are quite similar.
Here’s what I recommend to watch if you like Top Gun and/or want to see its roots:
Iron Eagle (1986)
Although Top Gun is undoubtedly a one-of-a-kind movie as a whole, it wasn’t the only military action movie released in 1986 about a hotshot, hothead jet pilot going up against MiGs. Many people think Iron Eagle was a Top Gun knockoff, and maybe it was conceived with the knowledge that Top Gun was in development, but it came out months earlier. Its plot, which follows a young civilian pilot (Jason Gedrick) who steals a fighter jet to mount a rescue of his father in the Middle East, is also a bridge between the Vietnam War-rematch focus of POW/MIA films of the time (Missing in Action, Rambo) and the aerial interest of Top Gun, which is also jingoistic but not mission-centric. Additionally, Iron Eagle features stunt piloting by Art Scholl performed just before he went on to do the same for Top Gun and died in a crash during the latter’s production.
Moving Violations (1985) and Spiker (1985)
Here are two movies that are actually really bad but also kind of funny. Not unlike Top Gun, right? They just don’t have the production value of a Tom Cruise vehicle made by the team of Simpson/Bruckheimer. Moving Violations is like a goofy version of Top Gun set in a remedial traffic school with a defiant lead (John Murray, little brother of Bill) who winds up dating a woman he meets in class who is unexpectedly a rocket scientist — compared to Top Gun’s love interest being an astrophysicist and the teacher of the class rather than a fellow student. Spiker, on the other hand, is just a dumb macho sports movie focused on Olympic-hopeful volleyball players, and it opens with a silly (and too brief) pre-Top Gun beach volleyball montage.
An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Louis Gossett Jr., who also co-stars in Iron Eagle, won an Oscar for his supporting performance in this romantic military drama as a tough drill instructor at the US Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School. And a lot of people look back on An Officer and a Gentleman as a probable influence on Top Gun — Gene Siskel even focused much of his review of the latter on its parallels with the earlier hit, from its protagonist (here played by Richard Gere) having “a father-induced chip on his shoulder” to Tom Skerritt filling the Gossett role and Anthony Edwards playing a parallel ill-fated part to David Keith’s. Siskel wouldn’t know this at the time, but both movies also wound up winning an Academy Award for their respective original love songs, “Up Where We Belong” and “Take My Breath Away.”
Another movie from the summer of 1982 that looks like a direct influence on, or at least recent forebear to Top Gun is Clint Eastwood’s Firefox, in which Eastwood also stars as a fighter pilot who steals a top-secret Soviet aircraft — a fictional advanced MiG with elements that technically make the movie a sci-fi flick. For the flight and dogfight effects, Firefox employed the Oscar-winning talents of John Dykstra. His work executing the space battles in Star Wars, which were themselves influenced by aerial combat from World War II (and World War II movies), surely, in turn, inspired movies like Firefox and Top Gun, which brought such action sequences back to Earthly craft (a decade later, Independence Day would further link Star Wars and Top Gun dogfight action with its jet fighter versus spaceship battle).
Clay Lacy, who did some aerial camerawork for Top Gun was a consultant on Firefox, but I don’t think the earlier movie features any actual flying stunts. If you do want another sci-fi effort with performances by real jets, check out 1980’s The Final Countdown, which has the first appearance of F-14 Tomcats in a movie, ahead of Top Gun, and they’re similarly seen stationed on and taking off from an aircraft carrier in very cool action sequences.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
What does an iconic John Travolta movie about hotshot disco dancers have to do with an iconic Tom Cruise movie about hotshot US Navy pilots? On the surface level, not a lot, though I hope I made a clear enough hint at their very general connectivity within that inquiry. Like Top Gun, Saturday Night Fever is based on a magazine article, and both movies focus on a cocky young man trying to be the best of the best at what he’s into, though for Travolta’s character it’s more of a hobby than a profession (until the sequel anyway).
In James Russell and Jim Whalley’s book Hollywood and the Baby Boom: A Social History, one of Top Gun’s screenwriters, Jack Epps Jr., cites Saturday Night Fever, along with An Officer and a Gentleman and the Simpson/Bruckheimer film Flashdance, which is also based on a true story, as influences on Top Gun on a certain level. “How can we get this made?” he recalls asking. “Let’s do exactly what Paramount likes to make. Let’s give them this very tight, little movie with this little drama at the center of it.” The world of Top Gun doesn’t exactly resemble the blue-collar arenas of Saturday Night Fever and Flashdance, however.
Or even Rocky, which is another I’d include in the mix if it was Paramount, especially since like Rocky, Top Gun’s main character is always misremembered as being the champion of the big competition (Apollo Creed wins the bout in the former, while Iceman wins the TOPGUN trophy in the latter). Also, there are already takes out there likening the plot of the upcoming sequel Top Gun 2: Maverick with that of the Rocky reboot-sequel Creed.
Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)
I kept the earlier works of Top Gun‘s actors and creative talents to the introduction of this column (and some of them to just mentions within other entries), but I want to highlight the first screen appearance of the movie’s biggest star: the USS Enterprise. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is the setting for much of Top Gun, including its flashiest montages, and the real ship’s exteriors even played the part (the interiors were shot on the USS Ranger). But nearly twenty years earlier, the Enterprise made its film debut in another movie based on an article: Yours, Mine and Ours. The comedy very loosely depicts the real-life Beardsley family, which included eighteen children, brought together through the marriage of Helen (Lucille Ball) and Frank (Henry Fonda). The fictional version of the latter is a naval officer serving on the Enterprise at the start of the story.