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The stars of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) are the flying machines. The spidery, spindly line drawings of Ronald Searle lose no time casting their aptly precarious-looking spell over the opening credits of this saga about a 1910 London-to-Paris air race. Even though liftoff isn't literally achieved until the film is far past the halfway point, the film ends up exerting an improbable appeal that stems directly from its fleet of restored and replicated single, double and triple-winged aircraft with names like Deperdussin, Blackburn, Ornithopter, Demoiselle and the like. It's the Boxkite that is perhaps most evocatively named. Although the planes have engines, they indeed suggest glorified kites, held together with paper, cloth and thin wooden struts. We suspend our breath at the sight of their fragility. Beautiful in their evanescence, they are man-made mayflies of the sky.
Like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), The Great Race (1965) and Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969), it's very much of a time when movies were trying to fight back against television with bigness and wideness, and in the case of Magnificent Men, lots of sky. Fox's sense of bigness included a determination to not take a back seat to competing studios when it came to padding the cast with international stars, too, the better to sell the film globally. The men are not exactly magnificent. They're not exactly men, either. They're unmitigated stereotypes, although for a film as poky as it sometimes is, their enthusiasm and professionalism is jaunty enough to help entice us when the planes (and a stunning array of vintage cars!) are off camera.
That the film should tack on a subtitle: How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes, is indicative of its essential overload (its 140 minute running time included an intermission break). Its mission is to divert us during the times when not much is happening. This it does starting with the character of a well-heeled press lord played by Robert Morley in a way that lightly caricatures all those roles that made him synonymous with harrumphing pomposity, quivering like a jelly with self-righteous indignation. He readily enough comes up with the 10,000-pound purse for the winner, and is quite prepared to give his daughter away to a stuffy Coldstream Guards suitor (James Fox) seemingly more interested in wooing him than her. As embodied by Sarah Miles, she's something of a Shavian New Woman, an ardent suffragette who rides a motorcycle and wants nothing more than to fly, but is forbidden by her father and her military fianc who shrinks from kissing her, saying, "I'm in uniform."
So, not so much a plot as merely a pretty thin pretext here, with a sexual subtext that includes Miles falling for Stuart Whitman's aw-shucks American cowpoke and barnstorming aviator who's all too willing to whisk her and her fearlessness of flying up into the wild blue yonder. Miles and Whitman also take turns becoming accidentally separated from skirt and trousers, respectively, allowing them to go through the motions of acting mortified as the attraction deepens. Clearly the main event is going to come down to Whitman's cowboy versus Fox's redcoat. Another Brit (Terry-Thomas, that gap-toothed farceur and mainstay of mid-century British comedy) adds to the mix as he tries to cheat and sabotage his way to victory.The other contestants represent the global spectrum (or at least that part of it that bought film tickets in sizable numbers), but are clearly just along for the ride, dragging their various national stereotypes behind them. Yujiro Ishihara flies the prettiest plane, festooned with Japanese prints, and speaks with an impeccable (if dubbed) English accent, but is one of the first to drop out. Jean-Pierre Cassel brings insouciant charm to the French entrant who's never so bent on breaking speed records that he can't stop for a figurative (or on two occasions literal) roll in the hay with a succession of women (all played by Irina Demick) as its way of kidding its kidding of the amorous Frenchman clich. Gert Frobe, Goldfinger himself, turns up as a Prussian colonel oom-pah-pahing his way into a plane he never has flown. His unswerving belief that all he needs to do is follow the Kaiser's book of instructions works well enough, until a gull knocks it off his windshield. Earlier, in a tangential episode, his pickelhaube (the spike on his iron helmet) punctures a balloon he's piloting, reminding us, as he and this film so often do, that getting aloft is one thing, and staying aloft is quite another.
Danger never enters the minds of these pilots who, when forced to land, are seldom faced with any difficulty a refueling, a monkey wrench and a push can't put right. Alberto Sordi, as a rich Italian count whose dashing panache is damped by his wife and brood of bambini, enjoys the most inventive recovery, thanks to a mother superior played in a cameo by Flora Robson. Part of the fun here is watching this or that mainstay in small roles - Eric Sykes as the cheating aristo's henchman, Benny Hill as the head of a Keystone Kops-like fire brigade that never puts out any fires, chiefly because so many flight trajectories gone wrong end up plunging into a nearby swamp filled with sewage. Still, the pilots' blithe daring helps the film put a bright sheen on the newness, excitement and novelty of manned flight.
Its sunny disposition gets the film past its clumsiness and intermittent lack of propulsion. The airborne race segment - in which the skies are thick with the authenticity and poetry of restored and replicated period planes - more than compensates for most of the labored gyrations that precede it, especially the obligatory, but in this case more perfunctory than usual love story. Listening to the frequently enlightening commentary by director Ken Annakin on the DVD somehow makes the usual blue-screen shots during the episodes of cockpit crises more savory, and it supersedes what was going to be this commentator's observation that the Miles-Whitman pairing lacked chemistry. This, Annakin makes clear, would have been a grievous understatement. They had chemistry, but the wrong kind. By the end of shooting their on-set blowups and mutual antipathy resulted in neither looking at the other off-camera, much less conversing.
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines also marks the last film appearances of Red Skelton. He appears in a prologue as a Neanderthal man and a string of descendants in various unsuccessful attempts at flight and again in an epilogue as a modern traveler stuck in an airport waiting room during a flight delay from London to Paris. It's unnecessary, but you're glad it's there. The same can often be said of the main event. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines should have crash-landed. But somehow it doesn't, even today. And it's vintage plane and car nirvana.
by Jay Carr