Can we just all agree that the early era of aviation was a lot more dangerous and a lot less fun-filled than what’s being depicted in Ken Annakin’s Those Magificent Men and Their Flying Machines – or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes (1965): a candy-flossed, occasionally exuberant, English farce, owing its pedigree to the big, bloated sixties roadshow. Curiously, this one plays more like the fat man put on a crash diet – its ‘all-star’ roster lacking the truly ‘big’ names a la Stanley Kramer’s thoroughly unhinged, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) or even Blake Edward’s rambunctious, The Great Race (1965). Once again, it’s the race that is the real ‘star’ of this show – from London to Paris (will we never tire of this predictable route?); the men in the aforementioned title, more manic than magnificent, their fandangle apparatuses, decidedly contraptions rather than machines.
The whimsy of it all is that these claptraps on display are, in fact, real models from a period in our not so distant evolution when man’s desire to conquer the skies truly exceeded his reach, or – in some cases – even his fanciful grasp on reality. It is a very brave fool who can strap himself into a flimsy assemblage of wooden dowels, wire cables and metal rods, with nothing more ambitious for safety’s sake than a thin leather strap to hold him in, before flying off into the proverbial ‘wild blue’; free as a lark and just as absent-minded - that he might as easily kiss the earth with a resounding thud as touch the hand of God. Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is therefore a story of ego; of the independently wealthy ‘feet on the ground’/’head in the clouds’ bon viveur, chasing any old diversion to satisfy his restless heart.
Here is a film tailor-made for the commitment-shy/stunted adolescent adventurer, more at ease dangling 10,000 feet above the ground in a rickety biplane than comfortably nestled in the arms of the women who so obviously adore them. Director Ken Annakin spins his yarn like an over-eager kitten drunk on catnip; Christopher Challis’ stunning cinematography expected to carry the weight in our amusement. Regrettably, Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is nothing more than a one-act gag tricked out in the allure of Thomas N. Morahan’s superlative vintage production design and Osbert Lancaster’s sumptuous Victorian costumes. It all makes for a very eye-popping pretty picture in Todd A-O 70mm and color by De Luxe. Yet the movie remains very much like that day-old cake one decides to take a gamble on at the bakeshop because it’s on sale; hacking into the stale icing and congealed heavy cream, only to spoil our appetites for richer delights never discovered from within.
Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is leadenly scripted by Annakin and Jack Davies; given monumentally absurd flourish by a truly annoying march composed by Ron Goodwin. It’s been two days and I still cannot get it out of my head. The screenplay is meant to be a cross between ribald English farce and classic Hollywood screwball/slapstick. Lamentably, it’s neither, weighed down even further by the heavy-handed performances uniformly bloodless, and, without guile or joy. Apathetic Stuart Whitman is top-billed as American flyer, Orvil Newton. But actually, he plays second fiddle to James Fox and Sarah Miles; respectively cast as Richard Mays and Patricia Rawnsley – the two betrothed…well, sort of. Rich is more interested in his plane than a love affair. In fact, it is his gentile prodding of Pat’s pap, Lord Rawnsley that gets the real show underway; a daring £10,000 prize money challenge to the first flyer who successfully crosses the English Channel into France.
I seem to be chronically regurgitating my ‘foodie’ references in visualizing the memory left behind by Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines; perhaps, because on this outing the old adage of ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’ seems apropos. All-star casting ruined many a lightweight and turgidly scripted screen spectacle made throughout the 1960’s. There are plenty of both misfires to disqualify Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines from taking the blue ribbon. What’s lacking here is discipline; the comedy never refined, rather prone to silliness, the trivial romance between Patricia and Richard a very gooey affair indeed. Supporting players like Gert Frobe’s portly and Teutonic, Colonel Manfred Von Holstein or Terry-Thomas’ sneering and scheming, Sir Percy Ware-Armitage run off with the show; socially inept misfits from every ethnicity, shape and size - all of them suffering from a pea-sized brain and too much disposable cash and ambition to be crowned king of the absurd and eccentric. What Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines ultimately becomes is something of a testament to history just for laughs; Annakin’s preoccupation with a cherished childhood memory (a chance meeting with aviation pioneer, Sir Alan Cobham) given practically free reign under studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck’s watchful eye.
Lest we forget Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, despite its extravagances, was a mere two years removed from 2oth Century-Fox’s debacle on Cleopatra (1963); a film that had nearly bankrupted the venerable Hollywood institution. Determined never again to repeat those sweaty-palmed expenditures, Zanuck was only superficially interested in Annakin’s pipedream, though perhaps ever so slightly critical of his aspirations to lavishly spend on period recreations; that is, until the director illustrated for the mogul his association with RAF Air Commodore Allen H. Wheeler, who could provide all the necessary vintage aircraft required to make the picture; albeit, each one a recreation. Wheeler supervised the construction of these vintage aircraft; monoplanes, biplanes, triplanes and even a 20-wing multiplane outfitted with stronger engines to ensure their safety as flown by a series of stunt pilots. SFX designer Richard Parks also concocted an ingenious rigging, capable of suspending the stars some 50 ft. above the ground, thus giving the illusion they were, in fact, inside the cockpits.
Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines did, of course, have the luxury of perfect timing; the public’s appetite for grandiose fluff aptly whetted, thus ensuring the movie turned a profit – and a handsome one at that: over $31 million domestically. Yet, viewed today, the movie doesn’t hold up quite so well. It is, to be sure, quite spectacular in its spectacle; soaring above and beyond the clouds in the gorgeous expanses of hi-fidelity Todd A-O; sets and costumes sparkling as they should when a budget of $5,600,000 has been correctly spent. Despite the incongruity of its narrative timeline (it takes longer to go from London to Paris in a gas propelled/engine-driven biplane than it took to go around the world in 80 days in a hot-air balloon) our enjoyment of Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is distilled somewhat by Annakin and Davies insistence in populating their movie with some truly horrendous stereotypes. These, of course, are meant to be funny. But they’re not. They’re simply odd.
I am not adverse to stereotypes, per say – particularly if they continue to hold more than an ounce of validity astutely observed from a distance. But the characters in Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines are little more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts; Stuart Whitman’s congenial to a fault hayseed hick; Gert Frobe’s by the book (literally) model of German efficiency (or inefficiency, as it were. He cannot take off, fly, or land his aircraft unless he’s diligently perusing his manual at all times); Alberto Sordi’s opera-singing/spaghetti-eating Italian Count Emilio Ponticelli; Jean-Pierre Cassel’s oversexed Frenchman Pierre Dubois, with a hottie in every port – all of them played by Irina Demick (a bad in-joke as Demick was then Zanuck’s own belle du jour); Terry-Thomas’ beady-eyed villain, et al. No, despite its lavish outlay of both time and money, the characters populating these elaborate backdrops suffer the indignation of being too plain and plainly obvious for their own good. They’re not enjoyably identifiable as clichés of humanity, but somehow embarrassingly transparent as clumsy archetypes.
Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines begins on a silly/sour note; an oration by no less commanding authority than James Robertson Justice, extolling man’s enduring ambition to fly; portrayed from the stone age onward in various incarnations from the ancient world – all of them featuring a very goofy Red Skelton, committing himself to some silent dumb show. From this rather inauspicious opener, we move into 1910; an era of intrepid birdmen dedicating themselves to the pursuit of aerial navigation in some very flimsy contraptions. Ardent suffragette, Patricia Rawnsley (Sarah Miles) races in a motorcar toward her dashing military officer/fiancé, Richard May (James Fox) who has just made another successful landing in his home-made biplane. Pat desperately wants Rich to take her flying. She insists. He resists. But Richard makes his beloved a promise to at least ask her father’s permission; both to marry her and take her into the stratosphere. Alas, Pat’s pap, stuffy but moneyed British newspaper magnate, Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley) absolutely forbids it…well…the flying, at least. However, he does entertain Richard’s plans for bringing together all aspiring aviators from around the world to glean their knowledge – presumably to Britain’s advantage. To sweeten this deal, Rawnsley decides his newspaper will sponsor a race from London to Paris with a handsome £10,000 reward to the victor of the skies.
News of the challenge is as far-reaching as America and Japan; a delegate from each country (Stuart Whitman and Yûjirô Ishihara – as Yamamoto respectively) arriving in England to partake. The first third of Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is dedicated to the queerly amusing camaraderie and predictably patriotic antagonisms that arise from so many flyers from such diverse backgrounds descending on England’s Brookley Motor Racing Track all at once. With his monocle as tightly pressed into his flesh as his ego, Prussia’s Colonel Manfred von Holstein (Gert Fröbe) is the very model of Germanic efficiency. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the spontaneous Italian Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi), whose carefree test flights wreck one aircraft after another. There’s also lusty Frenchman Pierre Dubois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who can always find time to seduce a buxom waitress or farm maiden in a haystack (all of them played by Irina Demick).
Eventually, the rivalries boil over. An absurd duel in a hot-air balloon between Dubois and Holstein is but one glaringly bad example of director Annakin’s notion of ‘good clean fun’; the chronically nefarious spying of buffoonish baronet Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas) and his bullied man-servant, Courtney (Eric Sykes) is another. Sir Percy sabotages two aircraft, has Courtney drug a pilot, and then cheats by having his plane shipped across the channel on a boat. Alas, it’s to no avail; Sir Percy getting his comeuppance after his plane inadvertently lands on top of a moving train; the craft dashed to pieces after the train goes through a narrow tunnel. The most tedious of the lot is Stuart Whitman, cast as the rugged yahoo, Orvil Newton, who wastes no time falling for Patricia, thus forming the impetus for a not terribly convincing lover’s triangle.
A false start kicks off the race, as one by one all fourteen competitors experience their own setbacks – mostly chronic engine failure and premature crashes. Only four of the competitors actually make it to France. With the finish line clearly in view, Orvil sacrifices his solid chance to take the lead, to instead rescue Ponticelli from his burning aircraft. His valor is observed by Richard, who wins the race for Britain. Magnanimously, Richard insists on sharing both his glory and prize money 50/50 with the penniless American. But Orvil has won Patricia’s heart and Richard knows it. Anyway, it would have never worked out for him and Patricia. Richard loves flying more than the girl. But as Orvil and Pat prepare to kiss their romantic pas deux is interrupted by a thunderous roar overhead; the movie’s timeline advancing to 1965 as six English Electric Lightning jet fighters zoom into the clouds. James Robertson Justice’s voice over reiterates for the audience how advanced technologies pioneered by these brave aviation novices has resulted in the luxury of commercial air travel, taken for granted in the present. We now see Red Skelton again; this time as a harried commuter whose flight from Britain to France has been delayed by heavy fog – the poor old sod still unable to fly under his own power, even as it has long since perpetuated man's free spirit and conquering of the skies.
Viewed today, Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is quaintly amusing pure escapism. Yet, its purpose seems neither to entirely educate nor entertain. It’s just clumsy and clunky and full of ravishing images lensed by Christopher Challis; a veritable showcase for Todd A-O’s crystal clarity. But it’s a genuine shame the plot rarely comes together as anything more substantial than a predictably heavy-handed mélange of forced merriment and myrrh. Despite its top-heavy roster, this isn’t a character-driven comedy/drama so much as it remains a fickle gibberish of circumstances into which some heavy-hitting name-above-the-title talents have been unceremoniously dropped. The ‘look who’s here?’ cameo status of the actors evaporates under the weight of the action. After all, it is a little difficult to have dialogue scenes between actors when they’re all independently airborne.
The last act of Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines thus devolves into a series of sight gags loosely strung together by the screenplay’s singular and overriding principle; to get everyone over the English Channel and to safety on the ground in Paris. This might have worked if the comedy in these vignettes were better. Alas, it’s merely serviceable and occasionally less than; leaving the audience to ogle and otherwise, bask in the vast expanses of Todd A-O. On that superficial level, Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is, at least, agreeable, if not the exemplar of the travelogue movie driven to extremes.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via a consummate 1080p transfer from 2oth Century-Fox will leave you breathless. Visually, Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is stunning and this hi-def transfer perfectly captures Christopher Challis’ luxurious imagery. Colors are rich and vibrant. The image is superbly crisp without being artificially enhanced. Contrast is bang on and film grain has been accurately reproduced. There are one or two fleeting though noticeable instances of edge effects; mostly on the roof of the hangars where the vintage aircraft are being housed. But otherwise, this is a near reference quality transfer that will surely not disappoint. Neither will the audio; a robust 5.0 DTS that can rattle today’s most advanced sound systems with remarkable spatial separation and clarity. Better still, Twilight Time has given us Ron Goodman’s score on an isolated track, plus director Ken Annakin providing us with a thorough audio commentary. We also get several theatrical trailers and TV spots. Bottom line: if you’re a fan of this movie, this Blu-ray is definitely the way to appreciate it.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)