Bright Lights Film Journal

Autogyros and Zeppelins: How Cinematic They Fly


Whatever happened to autogyros? They were both helicopter and plane – the Shadow had one, Claudette’s playboy fiancee King Westley had one in It Happened One Night had one, and of course, Professor Quail had one, which he famously landed on the roof of Wu-Hu’s International House in 1933. That’s just of the top of my head!

But who drives them now? I’ve never been one for lavish spending but if I were to come into money and coherence, that’s the vehicle I’d want to get rather than some lame car. I’d bribe the liquor store to put a rooftop gyropad out for me, and keep it chained to the chimney. I’d swoop down on crime! And pull shakedowns and extortion schemes on the criminals, the underworld would fear me! And there’d be no traffic.

Jean Harlow, mit ‘Gyro

I have a recurring dream from freshman year of college where I find a cute, pale, anorexic, black-eyed girl foaming out the mouth in the ladies’ bathroom (they’re co-ed after midnight) and I triumphantly carry her back to her dorm unaware she was just brushing her teeth. We start dating, though it’s more like she drinks my blood and I do her bidding. At semester’s end and I’m going home with her for Xmas — her dad wants to meet me, and he sends a chauffeur to pick us up from school… in a jet black zeppelin!

Zeppelin’s are way cooler than blimps, even if only for the name. Blimp. Ick! I envision casualties of fast food’s remorseless calorie one upmanship just hearing that grotesque single syllable word. But Zeppelin! Ach! Jetzt bist du sprechen! Named after the great Graf Zeppelin, with a German’s eye for luxury and efficiency and disregard for high flammability. I am so down to get one to go visit my vampire girlfriend’s parents in the sky. It turns out her family lives on a massive series of floating islands – a giant airship city if you will. This, it is revealed to me, is the future. Man has already over-crowded the earth; it’s time to get layered up like the cityscape of The Fifth Element or Blade Runner The first who erect cities in the sky will be as the rich crowd of Dutch and British millionaire pirates living in Manhattan’s upper east side in the early 19th century.

Zeppelins show up, memorably, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (below); Up! (Not the Russ Meyer version); Madame Satan (above, 1929); Zeppelin! (1930); The Hindenburg –but of course now you see the pattern — these movies were all made or set in the 1930s or about wanting to go back there. After the Hindenburg blew up so spectacularly and modern airplanes made the zeppelin obsolete (and autogyros replaced by helicopters and airplanes) we never really saw these cool ass modes of transport again, except in our dreams… and of course the movies. They are like dream transportation – retrofuturistic marvels of a pre-digital age.

I say let’s bring back the autogyro and the zeppelin! Who wouldn’t love to go to L.A. from NYC via zeppelin? So what if it takes a week? Open air rear observation compartments! Farmers looking up, amazed, waving, scratching their heads in disbelief… rivers, lakes, Montana…

But of course not. That might be dangerous. The arrival of airplanes and the publicity around the Hindenburg made giant commercial traveling zeppelins all but forgotten. I vote bring them back! We’ll need them after the pole shift of 2012 when all electricity ist kaputt! And are they really any more dangerous than skiing?