Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a rancher whose farm has recently been foreclosed, heads to France to help fight in World War I. There he meets Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson), a disillusioned ace who teaches Rawlings and his squad to fly and shoot Germans under the command of French captain Georges Thenault (Jean Reno).
During a disastrous bomber-escort mission, a German called the Black Falcon strafes one of Rawlings's squadmates on the ground. Rawlings is frustrated by the fact that only he seems to care about the breach of honor, and vows his own revenge.
After a second, this time successful, bombing mission against the same target, Blaine chases down the Falcon. After a lengthy dogfight, Blaine kills the Falcon with a pistol he was given by Cassidy in the beginning of the movie.
Flyboys provides examples of the following tropes:
- Ace Pilot
- A villainous version in the form of the fictional German ace, "The Black Falcon".
- Cassidy is the standard Cultured Warrior version.
- Anyone Can Die: Three main squad members are killed throughout the movie, not to mention the several minor characters and the one pilot strafed on the ground in the beginning.
- Artistic License Physics: Even though WWI planes were far lighter and much more nimble than any later-existing military aircraft, their depiction in the movie still strains the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Some of the maneuvers they pull off would tear the canvass on their wings to shreds or would be simply impossible with the aircraft engines of the era. All justified by the Rule of Cool, it seems... Also justified by the fact that some of the maneuvers that the DR.1's were capable of pulling off would have had the audiences in complete disbelief. One of the more notable ones is a sideslip (an actual maneuver used by real-world pilots to drop altitude quickly and recover just as quickly). Some German pilots performed this trick to strafe enemy aircraft as they passed. Note that in a sideslip, an aircraft is basically flying sideways. DR.I's could also turn on a dime, almost literally, as one pilot is said to have reversed his aircraft in midair almost instantly, and was able to keep flying.
- Badass Longcoat: Most of the main characters, but Cassidy in particular for wearing the only gray-black one as opposed to tan.
- Chekhov's Gun: In the final dogfight scene, the Black Falcon almost kills Rawlings when he suddenly flies around and shoots him with a pistol Cassidy gave him earlier.
- Combat Pragmatist: Rawlings in the final dogfight, when his machine guns are disabled by German aircraft. Just as the Black Falcon dramatically cocks his guns to prepare for the killing shot, Rawlings flies around, pulls off his pistol, and shoots him straight in the head. Note that that was quite a special case; he didn't use this gun against Wolfert (the German pilot who spared his life) when his machine guns jammed, but considering that this was the Black Falcon he was dealing with (who mercilessly killed an airman on the ground, as well as having shot down Cassidy), he just had to kill the bastard in any way he could in revenge.
- Cultured Warrior: Perhaps all of the pilots excluding the Falcon. Prime examples include Cassidy and the chivalrous German ace.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: The first dogfight that the Escadrille gets into. The Americans are shot down easily by the more skillful, better-equipped German pilots. The succeeding ones get better for the Americans, until the final one shows them easily triumphing over the Germans.
- Do a Barrel Roll: The ending. Although this is somewhat Truthin Television. Early dogfights actually did involve guys shooting handguns, rifles, and even dropping bricks on enemy aircraft. And there was actually one incident in which a pilot whose guns had jammed just flew up beside the enemy's plane and headshotted him with his service revolver in the same manner in which Rawlings finally offs the Black Falcon in the movie. I believe it was American pilot Frank Luke who did this, on whom Rawlings is loosely based.
- Cassidy uses a literal barrel roll (correctly, as it happens) during the zeppelin battle to get behind a German fighter.
- Eagle Squadron: The US hasn't entered the war yet, so the protagonists volunteer into the French air force by themselves.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Franz Wolfert, a pilot in the Black Falcon's squadron, shakes his head when the Falcon strafes one of the escadrille's Red Shirt pilots while he's on the ground and can't fight back. Truth in Television for the pilots. Early WWI pilots were a fair bit more noble than their contemporaries on the ground. Most pilots of both sides would refrain from shooting pilots on the ground or finishing off an aircraft that had stalled or jammed its guns (the latter being a depressingly common occurrence in the war). The infamous Red Baron was even buried with full military honors by the same guys who had shot him down. There's a deleted scene on the DVD for the movie that has a German pilot showing this bit of honor by dropping a Red Shirt's canvas on the French base.
- Hindenburg Incendiary Principle: One mission has the Lafayette Escadrille deploy to bring down a German zeppelin en route to bomb Paris. A more realistic example here, as German zeppelins were filled with hydrogen, and even then the squadron commander says that it can take hundreds of incendiary rounds to bring one down. It ends up being the mortally wounded flight leader ramming the airship that does it.
- Holy Hitman: Lyle Porter stencils a reference to 2 Timothy 4:7 on his plane ("I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith") and also sings the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" during a dogfight.
- Hook Hand: Eddie Beagle, after a Life-or-Limb Decision.
- Just Plane Wrong: Lots and lots of red Fokker Dr.I triplanes. In , they were rather uncommon, and of course only one pilot flew an all-red one. Also, the French Nieuport brand of biplanes had rotary engines, while the ones in the film are shown to have static ones. This is somewhat forgivable, considering they're all just replicas. What's far worse is that several planes seen in the movie either didn't exist at this point of the war, or were already retired from service. In the commentary, producer Dean Devlin comments that they knew the Red Fokker Triplanes were inaccurate, but they wanted to keep the dogfights easy to follow for the audience by making the aircraft as different as possible.
- Kick Them While They Are Down: The Black Falcon's entire modus operandi.
- Life-or-Limb Decision: Eddie Beagle's hand is stuck under his crashed plane while in the middle of the battlefront. Blaine Rawlings has to cut it off with a spade, as they are under German fire and have no time to free him.
- Old School Dogfight: Kind of a given, considering World War I was the "Old School" in question.
- Oppressed Minority Veteran: The "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue states that Eugene Skinner, the Lafayette Escadrille's black member (who had been a boxer based out of Paris at the start of World War I) left the French Army to enlist in the U.S. Army when the US joined the war in 1917. Being black, he was not allowed to fly despite his proven ability. He subsequently resigned from the Army and flew for the U.S. Post Office.
- Ramming Always Works: It does when your target is filled with hydrogen.
- Redemption Equals Death: Briggs Lowry is a racist snob. After he's forgiven by Eugene, the resident minority, he's promptly killed in a dogfight. Word of God is that Lowry was intended to just be a snob, and the conflict between him and Eugene was intended to be based more on class than race. Given American history, the misunderstanding was bound to happen, even though class was definitely there (Lowry: from an exceedingly rich family; Eugene: a boxer). Interestingly, most of the real pilots of the Escadrille actually were more like Lowry than Eugene, coming from fairly well-off families. Eugene is also one of the only characters who was almost completely based on one person who really did fly with the Escadrille. Class/race conflicts as seen in the film likely did actually happen to some extent.
- Red Baron: The Black Falcon.note
- Rule of Cool: At least two thirds of the movie.
- Selective Historical Armoury
- Featured the Fokker Dr.I triplane exclusively as the fighter plane of the German air army when it was in fact not terribly common. More egregiously nearly every one is painted bright red, when the only pilot to use an all-red scheme was Manfred von Richthofen (hence "The Red Baron"), and even partial red paintjobs were generally a trademark of Richthofen's Jasta 2.
- Also, several of the French and other Allied planes shown are anachronistic, because they were either non-existent or phased out during the events of that movie (it's supposed to be set in 1916).
- The Theme Park Version : Done on purpose, since the creators admitted of liking the Rule of Cool approach to movies like this.
- Token Minority: Eugene, the black-boxer-turned-pilot. (Based on Eugene Bullard, the first black military pilot.)
- Upper-Class Twit: Lowry is an American version. He gets friendlier and less self-centered as the movie progresses.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Lowry's only in the war to impress his father.
- World War I
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: With changed names, an added romantic sub-plot, and generally glorified pilots.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: After the final battle, we are told that Jensen continued to fight in the war, and he was given a hero's welcome when he returned home. Skinner joined the Americans when they joined the war, but he wasn't allowed to fight due to his color. He became one of the first air postal carrier's pilots. Beagle remained in Europe, where he married an Italian girl and started a flying circus. Rawlings went back to Paris to find his Love Interest Lucienne but didn't find her. Instead, he returned to Texas to create one of the largest cattle ranches in the US.