Some aircraft are practically motion picture stars unto themselves — see the Grumman F-14 Tomcats of Top Gun. Perhaps the most prolific military plane on the silver screen is the B-17 Flying Fortress of countless World War II films. Then there's the F-35 stealth fighter, which has had a disastrous movie career up to (and including) getting ripped apart by The Incredible Hulk.
The A-10 Warthog's movie career is more subtle. Its on-screen appearances are in supporting roles that reflect its status as America's best close-air support aircraft. The low- and slow-flying A-10 is tough, durable and anti-glamorous. Its design is utilitarian — and not pretty to look at.
Battle-scarred A-10s head toward their doom in 'Terminator Salvation.' | Warner Bros.
Really, it's a flying 30-millimeter Gatling gun with an armored frame built around it and an enormous compliment of missiles and bombed slung underneath the wings. When directors need something that flies and can blow up objects on the ground, the Warthog is a reliable character.
Not that the A-10 has always done well on screen.
Courage Under Fire (1996)
The Warthog made its first appearance — from what we can tell — in this Denzel Washington-led drama which served as Hollywood's opening exploration of the Persian Gulf War. While not a classic and (at times) a bit maudlin, Courage Under Fire is a weighty and serious meditation on the inherently confusing nature of combat and the unreliability of eyewitnesses.
Washington portrays a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel tasked with investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of Medevac Huey commander Capt. Karen Walden, played by Meg Ryan, during combat with Iraqi troops. The White House wants to award her the Medal of Honor, but there are questions about what happened in the moments before her death — which may implicate another soldier. The investigation also forces Washington's character to confront buried trauma in his past.
The A-10s are only in the film for a brief few seconds, where they napalm the West Texas desert which stands in for the Iraqi battlefield.
We have mixed feelings about this film. To be sure, Jarhead is a good movie — although Marine veterans will point out errors in detail. It's a mood picture that gets at the feeling of being in the Marines while the movie Marines do things real ones would never do. The film deserves praise, but it's not perfect.
Jarhead is heavily adapted from the 2003 book of the same name by Marine veteran Anthony Swofford, who served during the Persian Gulf War. In the film version, the Marines advance into Iraq when they see five A-10s flying past them. "Warthogs, baby! Those things are fucking tank killers," one Marine shouts. "That shit's a fucking monster!"
Pumped up at the sight, he falls out of formation, which triggers two of the planes to turn around and attack the unit. Note that none of this ever happened. In the book, Swofford references an A-10 strike on a Marine LAV during the Battle of Khafji, which killed 11 U.S. troops. There was no Warthog friendly fire attack on Swofford's unit in real life.
The scene also flubs several other details. Listen closely.
Fans of the Transformers franchise are more familiar with A-10s appearing in toys depicting shape-shifting alien robots from the 1980s. The A-10 does not turn into a robot in the 2007 Michael Bay ode to military hardware pornTransformers, but they do arrive for a battle with Scorponok.
It's easy to see why — the Pentagon provided an unprecedented level of support for the film, helped rewrite the script and provided (paid) uniformed extras. The A-10 scene was even filmed at the U.S. Army's White Sands, New Mexico testing range, which stood in for an Egyptian village.
Don't expect 100 percent accuracy with sound effects and combat tactics — but the aircraft are real. Remember that the Pentagon doesn't concern itself so much with unerring accuracy in movies. It cooperates with studios as a recruiting tactic (the military prefers films that have a generally positive take on the institution) and to boost morale for service members and their families.
Terminator Salvation (2009)
It's a compliment to the A-10's durability that director McG included it in his post-apocalyptic take on the Terminator franchise. Skynet has nuked the planet and the Resistance relies on the slow-flying planes for close-air support owing to their (relatively) low maintenance requirements.
But the results are … mixed. The United States built the Warthog to destroy Soviet tanks in Europe, so it seems like a perfect fit for striking back at the metal-boned terminators. But when the planes appear in the film, they're easily shot down by Skynet's air defenses.
Pentagon watchers will recall that the A-10 is at a center of a heated debate between Congress and the Air Force regarding the future shape of American air power. Terminator Salvation, in a way, illustrates the argument for scrapping the Warthog.
Proponents of retiring the aircraft argue that the A-10 is only useful when the enemy can't shoot back, as the Warthog is too visible and slow to survive over a battlefield featuring sophisticated radars and surface-to-air weapons, like the kind fielded by Russia and China. Advocates for keeping the aircraft note that the U.S. military largely fights insurgencies and hybrid enemies, which the A-10 is well suited to combat owing to its ability to loiter for long periods.
OK, true, Terminator Salvation is just a movie. But we can expect robotic armies — with sophisticated sensors to boot — to slowly become an emerging reality over the 21st century. Arguably, they're already here … if you include drones.
Iron Sky (2012)
The absolutely ludicrous Nazi-sploitation film Iron Sky by Finnish director Timo Vuorensola features a President Sarah Palin (portrayed by Stephanie Paul), a soundtrack by Slovenian industrial band Laibach and an invading fleet of Nazi flying saucers launched from a secret moon base.
That's on top of the space-battleship USS George W. Bush … and a cameo by A-10 Warthogs (digital, of course).
We could complain about the Warthogs acting as the first line of defense in an air battle. The A-10 can carry air-to-air weapons but is a dedicated ground attacker. But this is a movie about Nazis invading the planet from the moon. At the least, you'd want to fight back with everything you've got.
I have seen this movie against my better judgement. (I'm a Laibach fan.) But I couldn't finish it, and would not recommend it. I've put up with a lot of schlock-filled action movies — but I have my limits.
Man of Steel (2013)
We've previously observed that the U.S. Air Force gets its ass royally kicked in Zack Snyder's Superman reboot Man of Steel. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters fly en masse toward the invading Kryptonian forces of General Zod only for them to do more damage to the civilian population than the enemy. Same goes for the Warthogs.
Two A-10s feature briefly during the battle for Smallville but get blown out of the sky. The U.S. Air Force assisted the production of Man of Steel, which curiously features perhaps one of the worst on-screen performances by the American military in a film — although it's a valiant effort considering the otherworldly enemy threatening the planet. That's ultimately a job for Superman, with terrible consequences for humanity.