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.)
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. 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.
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 M1C 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.
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.
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.
The episode of Blackadder Goes Forth titled "Private Plane", during the aerial sequence, reuses scenes from Aces High.
Film historian Michael Paris saw Aces High as another of the period films that attempted to "de-mystologise" warfare. 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".