Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines is a big spectacular adventure comedy about an air race and it succeeds admirably as both spectacle and comedy. It was a major box office hit for 20th Century-Fox, coming at a time when they desperately needed some box-office successes to offset their huge losses on Cleopatra.
It was an entirely British production and considering its epic scale and the astounding technical challenges it presented the budget was by no means outrageously high. It cost only half as much to make as the similarly-themed and exactly contemporary The Great Race and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines made a good deal more money.
It success had a good deal to do with the boldness of the idea - rather than a car race movie this would be an air race movie, set in 1910. The problem of course is where do you find 1910-vintage aeroplanes in 1965? The obvious solution would have been to use miniatures but writer-director Ken Annakin was adamant that he was not going to do that. He wanted actual aircraft. That meant they would have to be built for the film. And they were. The aircraft were accurate replicas of real 1910-era aircraft (and several of the replica aircraft are still flying today).
The basic idea provided the bare bones of the plot which were fleshed out with a romantic-triangle sub-plot, rivalries between the competing aviators and some dastardly dirty tricks by a villainous competitor.
Richard Mays (James Fox) is a Guards officer and keen aviation enthusiast who has built an aeroplane with some help from his girlfriend Patricia (Sarah Miles). They manage to persuade her father, the fabulously wealthy newspaper proprietor Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), to organise and finance an air race from London to Paris, with a very generous prize for the winner. The race attracts competitors from all over the globe.
Among those attracted by the prize money is Arizona cowboy and flyer Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman). Newton will soon become a rival for the affections of Patricia, thus setting up the obligatory romantic triangle.
National rivalries soon erupt, particularly between the French entrant Pierre Dubois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and the German military aviation contingent led by Colonel Manfred Von Holstein (Gert Fröbe). This culminates in an outlandish duel with the weapons being balloons and blunderbusses.
Despite these tensions the pilots are all brave and honourable men. Well, almost all. Sir Percy Ware-Armitage is not especially brave and he is not in the least honourable. In fact he is an unmitigated bounder and cad and he intends to cheat and to cheat outrageously, even stooping to sabotaging his rivals’ machines. Or at least he gets his manservant Courtney (Eric Sykes) to sabotage them - Ware-Armitage doesn’t care to take the risks involved himself.
The plot doesn’t have a great deal to it but that matters not at all. There are plenty of gags including a good deal of slapstick. I’ve never been a fan of slapstick but the slapstick in this movie is based on clever stunts involving aircraft, cars, motorcycles and fire engines rather than pratfalls and pie fights and I must admit I found it to be rather funny. The romantic triangle works quite well. The period detail is superb - the costumes are gorgeous, the sets are impressive, the aircraft look terrific, there’s some luscious photography and most importantly the aerial sequences are absolutely superb.
Those aerial sequences were achieved with a great deal of real flying skillfully mixed with remarkably well-executed process shots and with scenes shot using some extraordinarily elaborate machines designed by special effects wizard Dick Parker that allowed the real aircraft to be suspended from wires. The flying scenes looked mightily impressive in 1965, and they look mightily impressive today.
The cast is another major bonus. The various characters are all national stereotypes but the stereotyping is done in a fun and rather affectionate manner without any malice. Even the ridiculously pompous Colonel Manfred Von Holstein is a brave man trying to do his duty. James Fox plays his character as an English upper-class stuffed shirt but there’s a basic generosity of spirit underneath that stuffed shirt. When he has to do the right thing he not only does so unhesitatingly, he does so cheerfully. Jean-Pierre Cassel as the Frenchman Dubois has a passion for the ladies and Alberto Sordi as the Italian Count Emilio Ponticelli is passionate and volatile but they are good-natured and they are daring and courageous airmen. Yûjirô Ishihara as the Japanese entrant Yamamato speaks more like an educated Englishman than any educated Englishman. Some of the leading players (such as Jean-Pierre Cassel and Sarah Miles) had virtually no experience in comedy but they handled the challenge with enthusiasm and success.
There are fine performances in minor roles by some superb English comics - there’s Tony Hancock as a mad aircraft designer, Will Rushton as Lord Rawnsley’s chief flunkey and Benny Hill as a fire chief.
Of course Terry-Thomas steals the picture. He always did. The interplay between his character and that played by Eric Sykes is a major highlight. Having said that, there’s not a single bad performance. Gert Fröbe is superb and gets the single best line in the movie.
20th Century-Fox chief Daryll F. Zanuck imposed numerous changes on the picture. Ken Annakin resented this at the time but later admitted that Zanuck’s instincts were correct and that the changes were beneficial. Annakin had seen the movie as a straight mixture of comedy and spectacular flying sequences. Zanuck wanted to broaden the film’s appeal by beefing up the romance angle. He wanted it to appeal to everybody and the end result was a movie that really did please just about everybody.
This movie involved so much technical complexity that inevitably it started to run over budget, to the point where the front office ordered the production shut down. Director Ken Annakin simply ignored them and went on shooting and completed the picture. Fortunately once the studio execs saw the final result they realised they had a winner on their hands and all was forgiven.
The Region 4 DVD offers a very good anamorphic transfer and comes with some very worthwhile extras. These include a director’s commentary track and an image gallery that not only features photographs of the replica aircraft, historical photos and technical drawings of the aircraft of the era, but also photos of Dick Parker’s remarkable flying rig (incorporating huge cranes with wires slung between them carrying a trolley that supported the aircraft for simulated flying shots).
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines is simply magnificent entertainment. It’s a family movie that really should please every member of the family. It’s also one of the most visually impressive flying movies ever made. Highly recommended.