...part slapstick, part spectacle, and part adventure, but most of all it's sweet, lighthearted fun.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Those magnificent men in their flying machines,
They go uppity up, up,
They go down, ditty down, down.
They enchant all the ladies
And steal all the scene
With their uppity up, up,
And their down, ditty down, down.
Up, down, flying around,
Looping the loop and defying the ground.
They're all frightfully keen,
Those magnificent men in their flying machines."

This film was Twentieth Century Fox's answer to Warner Brothers' "The Great Race." Both comedies were based on actual contests held at the beginning of the twentieth century, one a competition among automobiles, the other among airplanes; both comedies featured stellar casts; and both comedies were released in the summer of 1965. "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" has the advantage of being shorter than but almost just as funny as "The Great Race." It's good to have both movies now available on DVD.

"Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" is a comic rendering of the famous London-to-Paris air race of 1910, in which the greatest aviators in the world at the time competed. A newspaper put up a £10,000 prize to the winner. Filmed entirely in England and utilizing an international roster of players, "Those Magnificent Men" is part slapstick, part spectacle, and part adventure, but most of all it's sweet, lighthearted fun.

I hadn't seen the movie in many years and remembered it as being a bit more zany than it is; such is memory. Interestingly, in one of the accompanying bonus features, we read that Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck felt that too much comedy lessened the film's dramatic impact and narrative flow, so a number of comic scenes were left out, much to the distress of director Ken Annakin. Still, the comedy that remains is intelligent and often tickles the funny bone.

The race is sponsored by a rich newspaper publisher, Lord Rawnsley, played by Robert Morley, who specialized in playing snobby, pompous, mostly comedic British aristocrats. He's in fine form here, as he snaps the heads off everybody around him, including his beautiful daughter, a highly independent suffragette, Patricia, played by Sarah Miles.

The film has little plot beyond the introduction of the pilots and the race itself, which, incidentally, doesn't get started until well over half the picture is finished, after the intermission, in fact. But each of the separate episodes is amusing, the actors are engaging, and the wonderful assortment of vintage airplane reproductions and vintage automobiles of 1910 are a delight to the eye. What's more, the aerial stunts and color photography are ofttimes spectacular.

Stuart Whitman stars as the American aviator, Orvil Newton, come all the way from Arizona to participate in the race. Like all the characters in the film, he's a stock type--casual, laid back, amiable, and courteous to a fault--speaking in one of those Western drawls little heard outside a movie theater. His main rival is an Englishman, Richard Mays, played by James Fox, who happens to be Patricia Rawnsley's boyfriend when the story opens. But as a rather stuffy young Britisher, Richard hasn't found the time to ask Patricia to marry him. Orvil moves in unawares, and we have a romantic competition to go along with the flying contest.

Representing the other countries of Europe and Asia are, first, Yujiro Ishihara as Yamamoto, Japan's ace aviator, whose airplane is a work of art. Next is Alberto Sordi as Count Emilio Ponticelli, a wealthy Italian pilot who brings his entire enormous family with him and keeps buying new airplanes on whims. Then, there's Gert Frobe ("Goldfinger") as Col. Manfred von Holstein, who doesn't know how to fly a plane but insists that a good German officer can learn anything from the instruction manual. And Jean-Pierre Cassel as Pierre Dubois, a Frenchman who would rather be a lover than a flier. Playing the various women he keeps encountering--Brigette, Ingrid, Marlene, Francoise, etc.--is the lovely Irina Demick.

But no great comedy is complete without a great villain, and this one's got a dilly, the counterpart of Jack Lemmon's Professor Fate in "The Great Race." It's gap-toothed Terry-Thomas as Sir Percy Ware-Armitage, a bounder and a cad who leaves "nothing to chance." Meaning he cheats. And he steals the show, along with his flunky, Courtney, played by Eric Sykes. It's no coincidence that Terry-Thomas is pictured on the DVD cover.

Finally, we meet Benny Hill as a fire chief, Red Skelton as a Neanderthal Man, and James Robertson Justice as the narrator. It's really quite a fine cast, and they do the picture proud. Add in the film's familiar theme song and the national and regional tunes that underpin the various scenes, and even the music is fun. In all, "Those Magnificent Men" is an enjoyable family film.

The screen size is an unusual 1.98:1 anamorphic ratio, a bit short of its 2.20:1 Todd-AO theatrical exhibition size, but close enough. The image is colorful and generally bright, with a soft grain in many sequences, and a slight blur and roughness. Minor line fluctuations in the plaid and checkered patterns of men's suits are noticeable, too, as well as in the delicate wing structures of several of the airplanes, but it's nothing serious. Overall, it's a good transfer of an older movie.

The film's original two-channel stereo has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1, and the results, while far from overwhelming, are likeable. There is a still a limited left-to-right stereo spread and almost no rear-channel reproduction at all, but at least it's clear, clean audio. The only distraction for me was that the sound is fairly bright and a little hard in the upper midrange, with very little compensating deep bass to balance it out.

The bonus materials are not numerous, but the ones with director Ken Annakin, like the audio commentary and the seventeen minutes worth of "Conversations," are more than entertaining and quite enlightening. Then, there are three still galleries, one of behind-the-scenes photos, another of visual effects, and a third of historical aircraft. A widescreen theatrical trailer, a teaser trailer, and twenty-eight scene selections conclude the lineup. English, French, and Spanish are provided for spoken languages, with English and Spanish for subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
"Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" is subtitled "How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours, 11 Minutes." Today, a supersonic jet plane can make that run in less than seven minutes. Times flies when you're having fun.

Oh, and there's even a moral to the story: Never build an airstrip next to a sewage farm. Yeah, well, you knew that.


Film Value