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Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines is a pleasant family adventure meant to be unchallenging entertainment. Athough I remember laughing a lot at age 13, it no longer seems very funny. But it's still impressive, both as a technical achievement and as an open-air, optimistic roadshow epic. It was a dream production for aviation engineers, enabling a few lucky technicians to reproduce some original pre-WW1 aircraft in full detail. The kite-like planes are exhilarating to watch soar through the skies.
The story on the ground is amusing but is mostly an under-use of some top international talent. The relaxed pace probably won't attract small kids who want faster action and more violence, but fans of huge spectacles will be pleased.
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines was shown in a new 70mm restored print at the American Cinematheque a couple of months back, and I heard that it was stunning. The film manages to fill over two hours with footage that makes England look like it never rains. When we're not watching aircraft in motion, we're given a constant parade of shining, candy-colored antique automobiles that look better than Dinky toys.
The story and characters are adequate and likeable but not much more. A competition is set up between Texan Whitman (who sounds authentic but is too lightweight for the role of aerial hero) and upperclass Brit James Fox (perfect as a priggish but decent fellow) over the saucy Sarah Miles. She's desperate to get up in the air against her father's wishes, and radiates the same sexuality that would come to the fore five years later in Ryan's Daughter. Their little triangle is cute fluff, even when the best joke they can come up with is to repeatedly have Sarah's skirts torn off. Bloomers are automatically funny, you see.
The movie spends much more of its time with its supporting cast, who mostly embody fairly dated national stereotypes. French womanizer Jean-Pierre Cassel woos sexy Irina Demick (The Sicilian Clan) in a set of mostly clever gags where she shows up as six different but identical women. Alberto Sordi and Yujiro Ishihara are set up for cheap Italian and Japanese jokes, and Karl Michael Vogler (The Blue Max) and Gert Fröbe are given embarrassing, humiliating German characterizations. Fröbe's every step is accompanied by a razzberry-like Oompah noise that sounds like wind breaking.
The script's one-note English characters don't even begin to tax the abilities of actors like Robert Morley. Terry-Thomas gets to play his usual sniveling baddie, but he's so good at it, and the action is so cartoonish, that he comes off better than anyone else. It's appropriate that his picture is on the DVD cover. 1
The rest of the cast is filled out with notable bits. Red Skelton provides kindergarten humor for an unnecesary prologue and epilogue that use all that early-aviation comedy footage recycled in everything from Around the World in 80 Days to Master of the World. Benny Hill and Graham Stark (Alfie) are firemen. Flora Robson is a nun with less than a minute of screen time. Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape)'s role as a Scottish flyer seems to have been mostly cut out of the movie. Sam Wanamaker (Christ in Concrete) is fine as Whitman's Yankee partner. Zena Marshall (Miss Taro in Dr. No ) is Albert Sordi's suffering Italian wife. Millicent Martin (Alfie) and Ferdy Mayne (The Fearless Vampire Killers) are barely on-screen long enough to be recognized.
Clever aerial rigs and so-so mattes are used for some flying scenes but the true exhilaration of the movie comes from seeing the real airplanes soaring. It doesn't really sustain (at least not on the small screen) but a last-minute rescue is whipped up to provide an acceptable ending. While not screamingly funny or even terribly exciting, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines is an attractive and engaging show.
Fox has given its Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines a fine send off on this budget-priced DVD. The transfer is sharp, colorful and lush and the audio track highlights the martial-band main theme, which is at least more melodic than the brain-killer in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. 2
Director Ken Annakin provides a full commentary. There's a making-of featurette and several galleries explaining the creation of the airplanes, which will be an attraction for aviation buffs. The planes were authentic except they used more powerful modern engines, and were thus more maneuverable and safe.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines rates:
1. American Saturday morning
cartoons soon had a 'big race' show called Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races that consisted of
repetitious races with funny cars/planes/boats/you-name-it.
If I remember correctly, the hero was a Dudley Do-Right type and the bad guy Dick Dastardly
a rip-off of Terry-Thomas'
character, complete with a sniveling dog assistant (named Muttley) modeled on Courtney, Terry-Thomas' crazed assistant in
crime played by Eric Sykes. (Thanks to Larry House and Martin)
2. One cute moment has the soundtrack utilize the John Phillips Sousa
martial tune "Liberty Bell March"
used for the Monty Python theme song. Ah, if only some Pythons materialized as well. (Thanks
to Larry House)