Once Upon a Time In Hollywood Or Something

Screen grab from “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.”

January 27, 2020

IT’S IMPRESSIVE, the efforts filmmakers go through in order to get period details correct. Few expenses are spared, it seems, bringing the past to life. At least when it comes to music, cars, consumer products, billboards. This meticulousness often stops, however, when it comes to airlines and airplanes. Suddenly the details don’t matter as much.

I was flying back from the Philippines the other day and was able to catch the latest Quentin Tarantino movie, “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.” The film is set in 1969, in the days leading up to the Manson murders, and Pan Am, the country’s premier international carrier of that era, makes a handful of cameos. The plane we see each time, shown both from the inside and outside, is a 747.

The interior shots are well done. Tarantino nails the powder blue uniforms, the spiral staircase, the upper deck lounge, and so on. The exterior shots are another story. In two of Pan Am’s three appearances, the plane on the screen is a digitized composite — a cartoon, if you will — of a 747 variant that has never existed. The livery is dead on, but the plane itself is wrong. For starters, it has the extended upper deck that only later versions of the 747 had. Pan Am never flew one of these. The artists took the time to correctly render the three, and only three, upper deck windows — a tell-tale feature of the earliest 747s — but the size of the deck is totally off. The engines, too, are screwed up. Pan Am flew only the Pratt & Whitney powered 747s, the engines of which had very different nacelles. We’re looking at General Electrics. This is as bad/worse/almost as bad/you decide as the mutant 747 that Ben Affleck gave us in “Argo” a few years back.

A bigger problem is the timeline. Would or could the characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie have been jetting between LAX and Europe on Pan Am in 1969? Absolutely. Except, the 747 didn’t enter service until 1970. The jet they should be on is a 707. I know, artistic license and all that, and I understand the temptation to use the more glammy and iconic 747. In fact I was willing to let the whole thing go, if only they hadn’t messed up the composite. If you’re gonna use the wrong plane, please use the correct wrong plane.

As an antidote to such laziness, meanwhile, you might check out the Netflix series, “The Crown.”

Peter Morgan is the creator of “The Crown.” I’m otherwise unfamiliar with Morgan’s work, but I’m splashing his name here because you’ve never seen a movie or television show that more accurately renders the details of mid 20th-Century British aviation. I’m no expert in this particular sub-sub-sub-genre, but I know what I’m looking at and I know that he’s done it right. The Bristol Britannia, the Vickers Viscount, the Douglas DC-4 and the VC-10 — they’re all here, and they’re perfect, from the window shades to the old BOAC liveries and registration codes.

If Morgan could do it, why couldn’t Quentin Tarantino or Ben Affleck? And don’t talk to me about budget. The cost is zero when the plane in question is just an airbrushed photo or CGI likeness to begin with.

And while it has nothing to do with airplanes, I’d like to understand why Tarantino chose to essentially remake his far more suspenseful “Inglourious Basterds” from 2009. Unless I’m missing something, the conceits of “Once Upon a Time…” are the same, complete with a reprise of the earlier film’s closing scene, theater curtains and all. And why again is Al Pacino in this movie? Can Anthony Lane or someone tell us the purpose of his character? He floats around the outskirts of the plot for no discernible reason other than to lend another famous name to the credits.

In 1975 Al Pacino starred in “Dog Day Afternoon,” which has a fantastic airport scene at the end, featuring a very real Convair CV-990 in the colors of a long-forgotten charter carrier called Modern Air, which is one of the all-time great airline names.

“Dog Day Afternoon” is one of few major motion pictures recorded with no backing music whatsoever. Yet that closing scene is all about sound. Airplane sound. The earsplitting whine of the Convair’s first-generation turbofans, and the roar of unseen planes taking off.

Pacino’s sidekick in “Dog Day” is played by the late John Cazale, better known for his role as Fredo Corleone in the first two “Godfather” movies. Cazale was from Revere, Massachusetts. So is Patrick Smith.


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24 Responses to “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood Or Something”
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  1. blair kooistra says:

    The Crown also takes care to get the railway scenes accurate as well, from locomotives (for the most part) to equipment. Their use of the 50 class diesel electric in the 1960s-70s episodes was especially wonderful.

  2. blair kooistra says:

    just watched Goodfellas last night. Scenes set at LaGuardia in the early 1960s: “Lufthansa” labeled looks like a DC6 or 7. . .might be possible for freight service? And a couple shots of 747s, again, pre-1970s.

  3. Clark says:

    My favorite jump-cut airplane mistake is in the great movie The Usual Suspects. When the gang flies to LA to meet Redfoot, there are several long-focus shots of a 747 coming in to land at LAX, shot from the front as it gets closer and closer. Then it cuts to a view to the west, from behind the aircraft just before it touches down, and the plane has only two engines! In consecutive shots! Who was editing this thing, and why couldn’t they get a shot of a 747 landing into the setting sun? Always causes my OCD to flare up.

  4. Paul S. says:

    Can I offer an alternate theory for the anachronism? Maybe it’s an issue of mock-ups; unlike the old days hen studios like Universal would have multiple airliner cabin mockups to shoot in, I think the studios tend to contract out to one of a couple of companies who specialize in mock-ups. I know for a fact there’s a company that has an old-school 747 mock-up – heck, you can even book an evening out where you have dinner “in flight on Pan Am” in the mock-up! – but there may not be a 707 mock-up readily available. The last Hollywood productions I remember that featured scenes on a 707 were the late, unloved TV series “Pan Am” and the odd episode of “Mad Men”. Considering Tarantino had such a fetish for using the actual locations in LA for scenes in this movie instead of look-alike venues or CGI replicas for this movie, it’s odd he didn’t’ balk about his characters flying in the wrong jetliner…

  5. Roger Wolff says:

    Patrick: Experts in different fields see different “errors” in films. Niel deGrasse Tyson tells the story that he noticed the sky being wrong in Titanic. So he once made a remark about that, which ended up with the director. So next movie with a night sky comes around and… he is given a call and asked to help get it right this time.

    So those guys try to get such details right, but simply don’t have the expertise that you have to get it right first time. So… if you’re loud enough you might get invited to help on the next one to get some of those details correct…

  6. Mitch says:

    As long as we’re picking aeronautical nits –

    BOAC never operated DC-4’s. They flew Canadair “North Stars” – BOAC called them “Argonauts”. Also flown by Trans-Canada and Canadian Pacific.

    The North Star was based on the DC-4 but it had a pressurized cabin, square windows, and liquid-cooled V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. The entry door was mid-cabin. It resembled the DC-6 more than the DC-4.


  7. Glenn Baxter says:

    I pick out discrepancies in movies and TV shows all the time. Appliances, telephones, cars, streets, etc. It’s not just airplanes.

    I’m no fun at parties.

  8. OZ says:

    Every deviation from historical accuracy (707 to 747, extended upper deck, engines) in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood appears purposely selected to enhance the grandiosity. The film revolves around myth making and a heightened ideal of Hollywood. I’d say definitely not “laziness” as you proclaim Patrick, but exactly as intended!

  9. Lurk says:

    Now, I _used_ to be irked by this sort of thing, I could, and did, rant for Britain if a late MK Hurricane or Spitfire flew past in a BoB film or a 57 class pannier tank engine was observed in an Edwardian set drama, but the older I’ve got the less it worries me. It’s fiction, not a documentary, so from the off we’re leaving reality far, far behind and if the set-dressing for the lie (it’s made up, so by definition it’s not the truth) is a little wobbly it doesn’t much matter as long as the lie is told well and keeps us amused for an hour or two.

    Of course it does help having been brought up watching Dr. Who, the canonical example of wobbly set dressing, which rather forces you to lower your expectations. 🙂

  10. Will Thomas says:

    I wish you would date your posts on the home page. I have trouble deciding when there’s something new.
    Love this site.

  11. STACEY GORDON says:

    The Crown is Aviation Awesome!

    Everything you say about how Hollywood generally gets aviation wrong goes double for what they do to the medical profession. Geeeeeez….

  12. mark r. says:

    meanwhile, British Airways just announced they are not flying into China.

  13. WildaBeast says:

    When they do that I always just tell myself that the characters changed planes somewhere and we just didn’t see their layover.

  14. Greg says:

    I’m willing to grant filmmakers a little creative leeway, but my pet peeve happens in TV shows when a character flies across the country. To show this, we are presented with stock footage of a plane taking off, followed by stock footage of a completely different plane landing. 747 taking off, MD-80 landing. Is it so hard to find matching stock footage?

  15. Frank T says:

    While I’m not a film production expert, I hazard a guess that they subcontracted the CGI plane out, and that company modified an exisiting CGI model to look like an older model. I’d be quite surprised if they modeled a new plane for every film.

    As for the use of the 747 when it wasn’t in service, the theme of the film is the passage into a new era, stretching to a plane that is such an embodiment of the jet age would be irresistible I suspect.

    As for saying that this film is the same as Inglorious Basterds because they both feature a violent ahistorical finale, well, now I’m really offended! Different plots different themes. Is Jaws the same as Blue Thunder because they both feature Roy Schneider shooting the villain?

  16. Peter says:

    Finally, someone else who gets really annoyed with this sloppiness! Race Around the World appalls me, any randon jet taking off, totally unassociated and different jet landing. For one of the worst examples in a film, watch “Philomena”. She flys J Class with BA across the Atlantic and BA has one of the most iconic, distinctive J Classes in the air. Except in Philomena!! They get on board to a regular 747 with old fashioned seating. Grrr. Great article, thanks, Patrick.

  17. Nice piece Patrick and a great film – seen it four times. I picked up on the timeline immediately — no 747s were flying then. The other details you pointed out I did not notice… I guess it pays to be a pilot.

    Tarantino often brings in actors he loves and respects. That’s what got us Travolta (who’s career was in a tailspin) in Pulp Fiction. Also Robert Foerster and Pam Grier come to mind in Jackie Brown. Laurence Tierney in Resevoir Dogs is another example. Pacino’s character moved the plot along. It gave us insight to Rick’s dying career and it made the logic of him going to Italy to film trashy westerns plausible. Anyways, that’s my take.

    Dog Day is a great. No Country for Old Men is another one that comes to mind with no soundtrack.

    • Patrick says:

      I’ll buy what you say about Pacino’s part.

      As for this, though: “The other details you pointed out I did not notice… I guess it pays to be a pilot.” I have to laugh because these are things VERY few pilots would have picked up on or have any knowledge about. Maybe one in a hundred? I guess it pays to be an AIRLINE ENTHUSIAST, is what you mean to say. Pilots, by and large, aren’t much into airlines or their histories, and don’t know much about them.

  18. Alan Dahl says:

    What would have been really impressive would have been to have paid GE to get their old mothballed ex-Pan Am 747-100 out for one last flight…


  19. Mark Maslowski says:

    Tarantino considers himself too cool to be bothered with details and accuracy. I hear there’s an extended cut coming out where we’ll have even more pointless footage of people driving cars!

  20. Cliff says:

    This is spot on, so many times I have seen incorrect aircraft make/type/ownership etc. I have seen films based in 747 aircraft with 707 windows and vice versa. I have seen six abreast seating in wide body aircraft and vice versa, I have seen rear mounted engines on under-wing engine aircraft and vice versa. I have seen incorrect carrier liveries and so often either models hung on string or cartoon type graphic mid air clips.
    I hate this bad continuity, ruins a movie for me, in fact I enjoy more observing continuity than the story line.
    Come back Disney, all is forgiven!!!

  21. WildaBeast says:

    “IT’S IMPRESSIVE, the efforts filmmakers go through in order to get period details correct. Few expenses are spared, it seems, bringing the past to life. At least when it comes to music, cars…”

    Trust me, they often get things wrong with cars as well. The average viewer wouldn’t notice as long as they’re “close enough”, but if you know about cars you can often spot ones that are too new for the time period the show is set. But in their defense in those cases they’re using actual cars, and they have to use what the prop department is able to obtain. With planes, if it’s CGI anyway, then yeah, there’s really no excuse for not making it the correct plane for the period.

  22. Christopher O'Connor says:

    I agree that The Crown is a superb show but have to say that at one stage there is (in an earlier season) a shot of a VC10 with the Speedbird back to front. How on earth that occurred is beyond me. As a former BOAC employee it stood out. For those interested there is a beautiful VC10 sitting at Duxford aerodrome in the UK.

  23. JamesP says:

    Oh, jeez, I’ve been afflicted with your eye for these things lol – I saw “Once Upon a Time…” in the theatre and that plane just jumped out at me! All Wrong!!! I was wondering when you’d get to calling it out!

    I think a 707 would have been sexier anyway – that was the really iconic plane of the Jet Age (as much as I love 747s, especially Pan Am ones).

    And you’re right, he certainly could have done it correctly. He shut down the entire Hollywood Freeway through the Cahuenga Pass just to film that scene where Brad Pitt gives the hippie girl a lift out to Spahn Ranch. I know, because I live there and the resulting traffic jam was an absolute beast. Anyway, *that* was far far more difficult and expensive than getting the plane right.