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.