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Produced at the height of the craze for 70mm Road Show epics is Ken Annakin's Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, a pleasant family adventure designed as unchallenging light entertainment. An enormous comedy about a 1910 London to Paris air race, the show remains impressive for its technical achievement as well as its slapstick comedy. It was a dream opportunity for a few keen aviation engineers to reproduce a veritable flying circus of original pre-WW1 aircraft in full detail. The kite-like planes are exhilarating to watch soar through the skies.
The mildly amusing story on the ground does not tax the abilities of some top international names. The relaxed pace probably won't attract small kids that require faster action and more violence, but fans of huge spectacles will be pleased. And, of course, viewers that recall the show from childhood will be charmed. It's completely fair to say that they don't make them like this any more.
British aviation enthusiast Richard Mays (James Fox) persuades Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley) to sponsor a London-to-Paris aerial rally as a newspaper promotion. Competitors arrive from around the globe: family man Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi), womanizer Pierre Dubois (Jean-Piere Cassel), Japanese enthusiast Yamamoto (Yujiro Ishihara), German Army Colonel Manfred von Holstein (Gert Fröbe) and dastardly cheat Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas). Richard is concerned only by Texas entrant Orville Newton (Stuart Whitman), a gee-whiz American who takes an immediate shine to Richard's girlfriend Patricia Rawnsley (Sarah Miles).
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines is one of the more attractive 70mm Road Shows of the 1960s, as much of its running time is spent in glorious aerial shots , expansive greenery and seemingly acres of vintage costumes. The film manages to make it look as if it never rains in England; how they found all those beautiful mild days is a real mystery. 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 is adequate and the characters likeable. A competition is set up between Texan Whitman and upper class Brit James Fox over the saucy Sarah Miles. This is easily the pinnacle of Whitman's career; he fits the part well enough but may be too lightweight for the role of aerial hero. Fox is perfect as a stiff but basically decent fellow. As in Blake Edwards' The Great Race, Sarah Miles' young adventuress is equal parts women's rights devotee and saucy tease. Against her father's wishes she's set on talking some pilot, any pilot, to get her up in the air. In her best moments Miles radiates the glow of sexuality that would come to the fore five years later in Ryan's Daughter. The romantic triangle is cute fluff, even when the best joke that screenwriter Jack Davies 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 a supporting cast chosen mostly to embody dated national stereotypes. The amiable Frenchman Jean-Pierre Cassel woos sexy Irina Demick (The Sicilian Clan) in a lightly amusing set of gags where she shows up as six different but identical-looking women. Alberto Sordi and Yujiro Ishihara are straight men for ethnic Italian and Japanese jokes, while Karl Michael Vogler (The Blue Max) and the great Gert Fröbe are given somewhat humiliating German characterizations. Fröbe's every step is accompanied by a razzberry-like Oompah-pah noise that sounds like wind breaking.
The script's one-note characterizations leave fine actors like Robert Morley to their own devices. Although group shots abound, most of the roles are compartmentalized, with a minimum of character interaction. Terry-Thomas plays his usual sniveling baddie, but he's so enthusiastic in the cartoonish role that he comes off better than most of the secondary players. 1
The remainder of the bill is filled out with notable bits. Red Skelton provides kindergarten humor for a prologue and epilogue edited from the early-aviation comedy footage seen in everything from Around the World in 80 Days to Master of the World. Graham Stark (Alfie) and the Music Hall comedian Benny Hill are firemen. Flora Robson is a Scottish nun with less than a minute of screen time. Gordon Jackson's (The Great Escape) Scottish flyer seems to have been mostly cut out of the movie. As Whitman's Yankee partner, Sam Wanamaker (Christ in Concrete) is also sidelined. 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 on screen barely long enough to be recognized.
Clever aerial rigs and so-so mattes are used for some flying scenes. Composited in 70mm, the matte lines are so narrow that many of the composites look very good. But the true exhilaration comes when the real airplanes are in action. Just seeing them cruise slowly through the sky -- at what, 60mph? -- is relaxing to behold. We're told that the planes were made from original designs, substituting stronger materials and lighter, more powerful motors. They may not be advisable to fly on anything but a calm day, but these fanciful planes seem quite practical.
I can attest from personal experience that matinee audiences roared with approval at every joke, booed the dastardly Terry-Thomas and cheered when the American (naturally) performs a last-second rescue. Director Annakin's show was hailed as a technical marvel and high-quality entertainment.
The Twilight Time DVD Blu-ray of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines replicates the Road Show experience complete with intermission. The full widescreen image is nearly perfect shape -- I think I saw only one brief hairline scratch. HD video's higher resolution allows us to see far more detail and texture in both the aeroplanes and the clever cartoons used for the animated main titles. The audio track highlights Ron Goodwin's martial-band main theme, which is at least more melodic than the brain-killer in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Twilight's Isolated Score Track gives us a chance to audit Goodwin's full work, which switches themes as frequently as the show's focus switches nationalities. 2
Director Ken Annakin provides a full commentary retained from the earlier DVD, along with a trailer and TV spot. Some making-of featurettes and galleries explaining the creation of the airplanes have not been ported over. Annakin explains many interesting details but also describes things that we don't see on screen. For instance, he says that Terry-Thomas really climbed atop a moving train for a few shots,. What we see is a stuntman in wide shots, intercut with Thomas close-ups created with traveling mattes. As ever, Julie Kirgo's liner notes point up the most interesting aspects of this G-rated family attraction.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. American Saturday morning cartoons soon had a 'big race' show called Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races. It consisted of repetitious contests between funny cars/planes/boats/you-name-it. If I remember correctly, the hero was a Dudley Do-Right type. The bad guy Dick Dastardly was a rip-off of Terry-Thomas' character, complete with a sniveling dog assistant (named Muttley) modeled on the film's Courtney, played by Eric Sykes. (Thanks to Larry House and Martin)
2. One cute soundtrack moment utilizes the John Phillips Sousa martial tune "Liberty Bell March". We know it better as the Monty Python TV theme song. (Thanks to Larry House)
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T'was Ever Thus.