Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes1965, 138 min.
Directed by Ken Annakin
First, I gotta say it out loud. You're probably thinking it, anyway. Is that title really necessary? That's a mouthful to say (or type). I will give it credit for one thing, however. A title like that lets me know what kind of movie I would be watching. I made no mistake. This was another 70 mm presentation, but I'm sure no one will confuse it with West Side Story or Lawrence of Arabia.
It's not really an epic film or even a grand film. Director Ken Annakin (not Skywalker) here has crafted a "big comedy," like Around The World in 80 Days or It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The plot is rather simple. It's essentially a race movie, although I must say the movie's beginning showed promise. In place of an overture, there was a prologue demonstrating man's pursuit of flight. Many futile attempts are shown throughout history, skillfully blending archival footage with closeups of "the common man" (all played by Red Skelton). The sequence was amusing and set the proper tone, but then... the opening credits started, a mix of dippy animation and a truly horrendous title song. I felt my spirits sink as the title sequence carried on. It was like witnessing a crash at take-off.
The film gets back on track once the story begins. Set in 1910, a newspaper mogul, Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), announces a race from London to Paris across the English Channel with a prize of £10,000. Although sure to rise international interest, he fully expects an Englishman to win the race. After all, Britannia should establish their supremacy of the skies as well as the sea. And Rawnsley has pinned his hopes on a young lad named Richard Mays (James Fox), who has been courting his daughter, Patricia (Sarah Miles).
Before long, folks come from all over the globe to compete. Pilots arrive from Japan, Germany, France, Italy and of course, the United States. All are basically caricatures of their nationalities. I found it amusing that the American pilot, Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman), was a denim-clad portrait of a cowboy. I guess that's what foreign countries think we're like. Good thing we had leaders like Ronald Reagan and the Bushes to dispel that misconception, right?
Even before the race begins, a rivalry begins between Mays and Newton. Mind you, they don't fight over the pending race, but over Rawnsley's daughter. Really? HER? A love triangle develops between the Englishman, the annoying Patricia, and the American who looks like an extra from TV's "Gunsmoke." I guess the pickings on the British isles are slim, because Patricia is not appealing at all. She's spoiled, screechy, fickle, and resembles Rachel Dratch. Surely, these two guys can do better. Maybe not Elizabeth Hurley caliber, but perhaps a gal who looks like Kate Winslet would be more than alright in my book. Move on, guys.
Granted, this love triangle is about as complex as the film gets. It's a simple delight, and can't take any of it too seriously. The humor is abundant, but I'd say only about half is actually funny. Don't get me wrong. There are laughs, but too many obvious setups that undermine many more potential chuckles. Honestly, there's a sewage treatment plant located next to the practice air field? That's convenient for some laughs, if you're the kind of person who thinks falling in feces is funny. Hey, if you do, there's a few scenes you'll love.
I'll tell you what is fun in a movie like this, though. Booing and hissing the bad guy. And oh, does this movie have a good one. "Good" meaning "really bad." Er, well, you know what I mean. Another British racer, Sir Percy intends to win by any means necessary. And, oh, is he a nasty piece of work. From his first appearance, you just know he's the villain of the film, mostly because he has that treacherous mustache. In fact, a strange thing occurred to me as I was watched this scoundrel in action. I was reminded of an old cartoon from my youth that concerned racing. It also had an aeronautical villain in it, with a pilot's helmet, goggles and a mustachioed appearance as well. Making a mental note, I looked it up on my phone during the intermission, and discovered this guy...
Well, I guess that settles that. No wonder it all seemed so familiar, and so juvenile. Sorry, for that tangent, but I felt it was worth mentioning. If nothing else, it proves that this film is very much a cartoon come to life, and not like that terrible and hyperkinetic Speed Racer from a few years back. I'd actually let kids watch Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines without fear of an epileptic seizure.
The portrayals of the pilots and their crews are surprisingly one of the funniest things about the film. Miraculously, it's done without being offensive in racial stereotypes. I particularly got a kick out of the Germans. they come off as total clowns here, slaves to structure, pomp and circumstance. As the film drew to a close, though, I couldn't help but think that, in this timeline, the Germans were über-pissed at being made the fools. So much so, they took it out by escalating World War I a few years later. Gee, thanks a lot, Lord Rawnsley. You were responsible for this conflict, which later gave way to the rise of Hitler and then World War II. Bravo. William Randolph Hearst would be proud. As would Rupert Murdoch and his church of latter-day yellow journalism.
All jokes aside, I found many questions circulating in my head as the film progressed. Why is that one lady playing seven different roles? How the hell is that thing going to fly (I asked this numerous times)? Did I just see Benny Hill? Why is the French anthem "Frère Jacques?" Who decided the Japanese pilot needed a British accent? Most of all, WHY was this movie filmed in 70 mm format? The spectacle of the aerial photography seems a lot smaller when attached to such a juvenile screenplay. I felt like it was using high-end paint and airbrushes for a mere coloring book.
Oh well, I can't really bash the film, because it ultimately is quite harmless. It's silly entertainment, and a prime candidate for a movie to sit kids in front of while you watching after them (perhaps more so if they're boys). They'll dig on the planes and goofy humor, and the film is over 2 hours long. That way, you will have time to nap or make a meal or catch up on Facebook. Like a junk food snack, Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines is big on flavor but light on nutrition. As empty entertainment it is magnificent, but as a film it never soars to great heights.