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A great film

There are a lot of big shiny 1940s-era aircraft zooming across our cinema screens at the moment. Yeh! We have had Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, we are due to get the remake of The Flight of Phoenix, based on the wonderful old movie starring James Stewart, and I have just returned from watching The Aviator, starring Leonardo Di Caprio as mogul, test pilot and eccentric, Howard Hughes. It is a fine film, and makes a number of important points about the man himself, the nature of doing business in America in the mid-20th Century and the evolution of modern air travel.

The story is quite well known of how a rich young oil family son becomes a major player in the aviation industry, challenges rivals like PanAm, produces smash-hit movies, before descending into madness and solitude. Director Martin Scorcese has long been fascinated with Hughes’ tale and gets DiCaprio to convey the mixture of driving ambition, brilliant engineering skills, bravery and craziness. Hughes could be seen, from one vantage point as an almost Randian-style business hero, challenging rivals like PanAm, whose boss was played with appropriate menacing charm by Alec Baldwin.

There are two great scenes which get the pro-enterprise, unpretentious side of Hughes across. He drives with his then girlfriend, Katherine Hepburn, excellently played by Cate Blanchett, to see Hepburn’s family. At lunch, Hepburn’s mother, instantly declares to Hughes that “we are all socialists here”, and “I do hope you are not a Republican”, and Hughes, bless him, looking around the vast mansion and its grounds, is too dumbstruck at these comments to make a fast and smart reply. Recovering his composure, later Hughes tells the preening Hepburns that his favourite reading is technical engineering reports on planes, which of course has the welcome effect of shutting the ghastly Hepburns up.

In a later scene, set in 1947 when Hughes is fighting for the future of his airline TWA against the monopolistic ambitions PanAm in cahoots with the U.S. Senate, Hughes makes a number of fine points about competition and business risk-taking that almost got me cheering in the stalls. Hughes wins his battle and PanAm is forced to concede.

Hughes was a troubled man and spent the last two decades of his life in circumstances so lonely and depressed that it of course will colour one’s view of his life in the round. But I came away from the film feeling a certain admiration for Hughes in how he was willing to challenge the status quo. Long after people have forgotten corrupt U.S. senators and complacent airline bosses, they will remember the man who built and flew some amazing planes. I also cannot help but wonder whether people will think something similar in future about our contemporary airline boss and daredevil man of action, Britain’s own Richard Branson. We shall see.

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30 comments to A great film

  • Dan

    After reading the Wired article about hiim this month, Branson eas Exactly who I was thinking of.

  • zmollusc

    I concur. Branson’s aircraft designs and record setting pilot skills easily compare with Hughes. Hughes plans to market ‘Tubular Bells’ only failed when Branson had the foresight to live nearer to Mike Oldfield than Mexico.

  • Christopher Price

    OT – Going to the cinema is all very well, but why has no one picked up on this?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4157121.stm

  • Richard Garner

    Branson always strikes me as a Blairite.

    On Hughes though:

    “In a later scene, set in 1947 when Hughes is fighting for the future of his airline TWA against the monopolistic ambitions PanAm in cahoots with the U.S. Senate, Hughes makes a number of fine points about competition and business risk-taking that almost got me cheering in the stalls. Hughes wins his battle and PanAm is forced to concede”

    Hughes himself bribed government officials for contracts to build planes that never materialised. Of course, not trying to feed from the public trough is a prisoners’ dilemma game, or a tragedy of the commons – If I don’t try and get a special privilege, someone else will, and I’ll be at a disadvantage – but that still needn’t make us consider these people heroes.

    Incidently – back to Branson: Jonathon, did you see the film in Ipswich, at the UGC, formerly Virgin Cinema, before that enterprise on Branson’s collapsed?

  • Edward Teague

    Branson is an I’m alright.

  • Verity

    Interesting review, Jonathan, although on your final point, I have to agree with zmollusc. Branson has done nothing for the airline industry except some fancy footwork in the marketing department.

    Richard Garner – Yes, Branson’s a natural Blairite. He probably drove a Renault Espace at some point in his life. Except, obviously, he’s smarter than Blair. He left school at 16 and became a multi-squillionnaire through dint of brains and Blair and his wife went through university and can’t rent out that white elephant they bought in central London for £3.5m. Also, Branson owns a business empire and Blair can’t even make money in the London property market. How inept this that?

    (Sorry, Jonathan, I didn’t mean to waylay the subject. I seriously enjoyed your review and will go and see the movie based on your opinion.)

  • mike

    Yes I think I will go and see it too, though I have heard that Alec Baldwin isn’t that good in it (but who could forget his “Always Be Closing!” part in glengarry glen ross?). But seeing as how you rate him in it…

    Christopher Price: yes that’s terrible though not surprising really. Almost makes me want to grow a big nasty Greek God Mullet in appreciation of what little freedoms we Brits have left.

  • Julian Taylor

    Fascinating to see that The Flight of the Phoenix – 2004 version – uses the same aircraft as the 1965 Jimmy Stewart original.

    As for the imbecilic ” Branson has done nothing for the airline industry except some fancy footwork in the marketing department.” try getting a massage British Airways flight; try being able to walk up to a bar and get 15 choices of Scotch on a American Airways flight; try getting a really good choice of games, movies, TV shows etc etc on a United Airways flight.

    I might not like many things about international air travel but by God I sure as hell like Virgin Atlantic.

    Try using it some time. Who knows, you might even like it.

  • Luniversal

    Hughes’s Spruce Goose is the most lasting monument to this pioneer of the military industrial complex, who was to free enterprise what King Herod was to obstetrics and gynaecology. Moreover, as a tax dodger his “charitable foundation” left Rupert Murdoch standing.

    And Hughes looked nothing like the foetus-faced midget Leonardo di Caprio either.

  • Julian Taylor

    Oh, and by the way Verity, Phoney and his infamous letterbox-faced wife don’t have £3.6m, even in their wildest wet dreams. Phoney is understood to have tried to get Foxtons (they of the trendy “let’s make our estate agency offices look like trendy wine bars”) and Chesterfields to let his party-funded investment out at the reduced sum of £2,750 per week from £3,600 – alas so far there have been no takers.

    It was recently evaluated (by the same individual who outed the fact that Peter Meddlesome could in no way have afforded his house in Bayswater) that Blair and his disgusting brood did not have the funds necessary to buy a house in Connaught Square. Blair’s annual revenue is around £100,000 while his wife’s annual revenue is not much higher than £300,000 a year. That combined income does not equate to the salary level required to approve a £3.6m mortgage.

    The entire situation was rather aptly summed up by an estate agent friend of mine who said that “People like Tony and Cherie Blair really do need to be told that they should not buy property south of the Marylebone Road, i.e. beyond the reach of their income”.

  • Here’s a bit of irritating pedantry:

    People who spend real time around them never call them by anything but their whole name. They are airplanes. Start paying attention and you’ll see that I’m right. “Planes” are for geometricians.

    I fully realize that just about nobody will appreciate this out loud, but it’s the truth, and it may serve you well to pay attention to it.

    Right, then. Carry on.

  • Hank Scorpio

    As original and bizarre as Hughes was I don’t understand why there haven’t been more films about his life. The guy had fingers in literally everything. His corporation was even at one time a front for the CIA. Hughes Corp. was the company behind the Glomar Explorer, a massive rig that supposedly was set up for mineral surveys/cable laying, etc. In reality it was built solely to salvage a wrecked Soviet nuclear sub from an incredible depth. Massive underwater cranes brought the sub up directly under the ship and brought it straight back to US waters.

    The Russians didn’t even find out about this operation until well into the Yeltsin administration when we finally told them about it.

  • I was almost tempted to go and see it until your picture revealed that Kate Beckinsale is in it. She is to acting what Hitler was to race relations.

  • I was almost tempted to go and see it until your picture revealed that Kate Beckinsale is in it. She is to acting what Hitler was to race relations.

  • Johnathan

    I can recommend Virgin Airlines. It is a bit more than marketing skill – it is a genuinely well-run airline. Yes, Branson is capable of playing to the gallery, but it is a mistake I think to imagine that today’s entrepreneurs will not make full use of what is available.

    For some reason the bearded entrepreneur seems to bring out a lot of hostility from the purists, including libertarians. I have noticed this sort of paradox before.

  • zmollusc

    Jesus tapdancing Christ, Julian! Massages and a choice of drinks are a marketing tool. Designing an airliner takes at least twice as long as deciding to put an extra bottle or a masseur on an existing one.

  • Keith Park

    Billy Beck: Well said, sir. When Douglas Bader took over his awkward-squadron in 1940, he ordered his pilots never to say “plane”, but always “aeroplane” (British equivalent of “airplane”) or “aircraft”.

  • At lunch, Hepburn’s mother, instantly declares to Hughes that “we are all socialists here”, and “I do hope you are not a Republican”, and Hughes, bless him, looking around the vast mansion and its grounds, is too dumbstruck at these comments to make a fast and smart reply.

    After glancing about the mansion and grounds, I would have replied, “I see socialism has served you well.”

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Just checking out the snaps from the movie – I thought Leo was supposed to be a pretty boy! What’ve happened to his looks?

  • Verity

    Julian – Re the Blairs’ mortgage, are you even sure ol’ Cher makes 300K? She feeds at the bottom end of the system – publically funded legal aid for the semi-transgendered to use the women’s loo at Paddington and so on. But, yes, even if she makes 300K, she had to pay tax on it, unless the IRS lets her off.

    The Blairs, most unattractive individuals in all aspects, add to their general air of loucheness by their surreal air of entitlement. One minute a £100,000 ride on the Queen’s Flight to go on holiday funded by the taxpayer, the next minute not declaring holidays at the expense of the very rich, employing conmen to help broker deals on property in Bristol. And now, Julian, you are suggesting that perhaps the Labour Party is helping to fund their latest venture into capitalism?

    Oh, gosh! Do you really think so? Why not just apply directly to Lakshmi (oh, wait a minute – he doesn’t need favours any more, now that he’s got the steel company he was after), or the Hinduja brothers (oh, wait a minute, they’ve got their British passports and don’t need any more favours), or, well, there’s always Geoffrey Robinson. How about extending the grace period for no smoking in “public” places and have a word with Bernie Eccleston? Or just find another zillionaire who needs a political favour.

  • Tim: I could not disagree with you more. I think Kate Beckinsale is a terrific actress and not just because she is easy on the eyes. I think she has real talent, though even she was not enough to save the moronic ‘Pearl Harbor’, which is the only movie I have ever walked out of before the end.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Johnathon – Richard Branson’s “pro-consumer” posturing irritates me. His “we’re on your side, don’t go to the big boys, they’ll only make money out of you” diatribe grates. I accept this is a marketing technique, however I find it distateful and hypocritical, since he’s heading up a profit-seeking entity. He’s not at all different to those he publicly disdains; he’s just pretending to be to attract customers of the more gullible persuasion. He “bring[s] out a lot of hostility” in me because he’s insulting my intelligence by assuming I’ll swallow that sort of bollocks. Having said that, I’m certainly not calling for him to be censored in any way, but he will always attract my cynical sneer, rather than my business.

  • Verity

    I was fairly indifferent to Richard Branson – perhaps leaning towards vague dislike because of his Tonyesque personna – until that episode with Courtney Love. For those who don’t remember, allow me to rake it over:

    Courtney Love had booked herself a first class ticket on Virgin. She’d booked her assistant, or nurse or minion in steerage. After the plane took off, the minion came up to first class and tried to join her employer. Not unnaturally, the other first class passengers complained. The folks penned up in steerage weren’t too happy either.

    A flight attendant told the assistant or whatever she was that she would have to go and sit down in her own compartment, whereupon Love, with that air of righteousness employed by socialists all over the world and in the air, began abusing the flight attendant. I think she may have hit her. (Can’t remember.) Finally, the assistant was removed from first class and arm-wrestled into her seat in cattle class.

    When the plane landed and Courtney Love was decanted, and when she was finally able to form semi-coherent words, she threatened never to fly Virgin again. Richard Branson lost no time in apologising, saying to the effect, “Rock ‘n’ roll people are special and we really don’t mind them acting like greedy louts as it’s all part of the fun,” and gifted Love with four first class tickets. (He denies this, but not with, from what I’ve read, any conviction.) Branson said, re rock “stars” that he hoped Virgin had a little more understanding than other airlines. That was the item which decided me never to fly Virgin. Those “other airlines” sound like my cup of tea.

    Hey, tough on the flight attendant who was trying to do her job, placate the other first class passengers and be polite to a drunken self-promoter and her aggressive assistant! I guess she just didn’t understand those free-spirited drugged up rock ‘n’ roll chicks!

  • Johnathan

    I am Suffering for My Art, so what if Branson’s advertising is in your view hypocritical?. What do you expect? The man wants your business!! Welcome to the marketplace. What counts is whether the airline he runs is value for money compared to the competition, like BA, United Airlines or whatever.

    I have flown on Virgin half a dozen times and I rate it for long-haul, though I am sure I’d have changed my mind if I had to deal with a yob like Ms Love, as Verity described.

  • Tim: I could not disagree with you more. I think Kate Beckinsale is a terrific actress and not just because she is easy on the eyes. I think she has real talent, though even she was not enough to save the moronic ‘Pearl Harbor’, which is the only movie I have ever walked out of before the end.

    It is Pearl Harbor that I am basing my opinion of her on. Had she been a footballer, after that performance she would have been on a free transfer after conceding 6 own goals, never to do more than clean boots again. She was terrible. I saw her in Van Hesling, and was far from impressed there. Admittedly the appalling scripts don’t help, but I just can’t help thinking I’m watching a plank of wood.

    If you don’t find her terribly attractive, which I don’t, then like Angelina Jolie, she becomes intolerable after a while.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Johnathan – like I said in my post, I realise all Branson’s crap is a marketing ploy. I think I mentioned that in my post, so I didn’t really need it pointed out to me. I agree with you, what counts is the service he offers. I’m familiar with Virgin credit cards, mobile phone accounts and their Oz domestic airline, Virgin Blue; I believe Virgin Atlantic now has routes here.

    So here’s why I object to the nature of the marketing ploy. Despite Branson’s “we’re on your side, don’t trust the others” rhetoric, his services, in my opinion, are not best-of-class (though usually close to best) in any of the sectors mentioned above. That in itself is not the problem, but it has a role to play. All companies market by saying “we’re the best” or “don’t trust the others”, no problems there. Only Virgin, ergo Branson who is central in their advertising and publicity, tries to posture as some kind of charity with their “we’re on your side, it’s you and us against the nasty big corporations”. Only Branson overtly tells the consumer that they and him have mutual interests. The seller and the consumer have mostly opposing interests and always will. His hearts-and-minds programme is such a sham (since he is, in fact, one of those nasty big corporations that he and I are supposed to be allied against) that it gets my back up. If what he offered was better head and shoulders over the competition I wouldn’t much care what he says in his ads or in the media (regardless, I know I’m getting the best deal), but, of course, in a developed competitive market, it isn’t and never will be.

    Once again I state that I’m not trying to say he should be stopped or silenced. However, the above is why I’m hostile towards him and his products. Nothing paradoxical about it. I just don’t like being taken as a mug by the bearded entrepreneur.

  • Johnathan

    But come on, I’m Suffering for My Art, Branson is not alone in using marketing guff like this. I accept it is a bit nauseating, but look at BA with its “The World’s Favourite Airline” crap, or any other sales pitch the airlines use.

    When I book a flight, I tend to ruthlessly use online booking services to get the best deals. If Virgin pops up as the best choice, I take it. If not, something else. I would not let a toothy grin and a beard to sway my choice. I am too materialistic for that.

  • Daveon

    Can’t stand Virgin Atlantic, probably flown it a half dozen times long haul London-San Francisco. Uncomfortable seats, poor service. The only redeeming feature is cracking inflight entertainment.

    The quality of the flight crew is vastly inferior to BA. Maybe is Virgin start a route to Seattle I’ll try that and reconsider.

    Virgin also have a dreadful airmiles scheme.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Johnathon – On the contrary, I think Virgin is alone in using that particular strain of “marketing guff”; the distinction (between that and, say, BA stating it’s the world’s favourite airline) I detailed in my previous post.

  • chris edwards

    It is nice to see my perception of socialists borne out here, either they have nothing and want yours or they have heaps (not wrought by their own fair hand) and still want yours, they are mostly parasitic predators hiding behind the “do-gooder” facade, the blairs among their leaders, selling my country to euroland for a bit of power, branston is an oppertunist and good luck to him.
    Chris Edwards