This blog post is part of a summer-long series of posts written by Humanities Blogger, Kristen Costa. Check back weekly to get a fresh, informative look at the themes explored in the films we’ll be showing as part of the newportFILM Outdoors series, presented by Lila Delman Real Estate International.

From 1995 to 1998, billionaire Sir Richard Branson attempted to travel around the globe in a hot air balloon. Don’t Look Down chronicles these attempts of the daredevil, who prior to 1987, had never flown a hot-air balloon.

This was not Branson’s first attempts at entering into the record books. In 1985, he attempted to make the fastest Atlantic Ocean crossing in his boat, the Blue Riband ( he was unsuccessful then, but broke the record a year later). He was also successful for fastest crossing over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in a hot-air balloon, in 1987 for the Atlantic and 1991 over the Pacific. Branson also has set the record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle, in 2004.

Branson’s adventurous spirit and hot-air balloon escapades seems like something right out of a movie or novel, comparing it to the Jules Verne novel Around the World in 80 Days. Many people think  this travel takes place in a hot-air balloon, but in the original text there actually is no balloon! This adventure story follows the fictional character of Phileas Fogg traveling around the globe using the newest technologies of Verne’s day- steamer ships and locomotives. The popular misconception about the hot-air balloon comes from the film adaptation of the book, first done in 1956 starring David Nivens and Shirley MacLaine. The film, which won 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, cemented the role of the hot air balloon in the story ( much to the dismay of many high school students who watched the film, instead of reading the book!) This is often further confused because many covers of the well-known Verne book do actually feature a balloon.

While Branson made several attempts to go around the world in his hot-air balloon, he came close a few times ( the closet being in 1998). Branson’s original flying partner, Steve Fossett, finally set the record for flying around the globe in a hot-air balloon in 2002. He became the first person to ever circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon, doing it in just 15 days.

PS: Jules Verne did write about an adventure in a hot-air balloon in another story, Five Weeks in a Balloon, which was written in 1863, a decade before Around the World in 80 Days. This book chronicles a group of adventurers traveling throughout Africa in a hot-air balloon.

For more information on this week’s newportFILM Outdoors screening of Don’t Look Down, visit

The Humanities Blog Series is made possible through major funding support from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independant affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Council seeds, supports, and strengthens public history, cultural heritage, civic education, and community engagement by and for all Rhode Islanders.