Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)

The town of Collegedale is just up the road from us, and every year they have an event at their municipal airport where you get to go up in a tiny little plane – room enough for the pilot and three passengers – for about ten minutes for free. Well, there’s a long line, so it costs time, but you don’t have to take your shoes off for Homeland Security either. So our son was hopping up and down when we told him what we were doing that Sunday, and he waited with astonishing patience. Then we left the ground and the color left his face and he bit his lip and he didn’t start crying until we were down and safe, but he sobbed for longer than we were in the air. He was horrified, and he never, ever wants to get in an airplane ever again.

But watching other people crash in absurdly unsafe contraptions, that he’ll watch all day. I told him that I thought that since he enjoyed The Great Race so much he would also enjoy this, he beamed and asked, “Will there be sabotage? I hope there’s a bad guy who sabotages the other planes!” And indeed there is. The evil Sir Percy is played by Terry-Thomas, and while he doesn’t get quite as much screen time as Jack Lemmon did in Race – there are, after all, far more characters in this – he’s still a bounder and a very entertaining villain. At one point, he’s ready to trade punches with Stuart Whitman’s character. Whitman socks him in the nose instantly and I laughed for five minutes.

The backdrop for the movie is a London to Paris air race in 1910, arranged by a rich media tycoon, played by Robert Morley, to drive circulation of his paper and prove that Britannia rules the skies. “The trouble with these international affairs is that they attract foreigners,” he grumbles at one point. That’s a great line, but sadly, the greater trouble is that I have to break out the “unflattering cultural stereotypes” tag again, because the very broad caricatures, and the ugly slang that the posh British characters employ, is the only weak part of this otherwise very funny film.

I have to note that as much as our son guffawed and giggled, the movie’s prologue was possibly every bit as effective as the next two hours in making him roar with laughter. You’ve all seen some of that very old film footage of doomed-to-crash sky cars hopping up and down and that plane with a dozen stacked sets of wings collapsing in on itself? Well, this kid hadn’t. I figured that if he enjoyed the actual movie half as much as the old stock footage, it’d be a success.

Helping the movie along, there’s a great cast of familiar faces and even a familiar location. Robert Morley’s house is Fulmer Hall in Buckinghamshire, where John Steed was living in the second series of The New Avengers. I think we last saw the house just thirty days ago! And as for talent, Stuart Whitman and James Fox are the principal competitors and rivals, with Sarah Miles caught in a love triangle between them. Gert Fröbe leads what you might call the B-team of Prussian, French, and Italian competitors. And there are small roles for three big names of British TV comedy in the sixties: Benny Hill, Tony Hancock, and Eric Sykes.

Those Magnificent Men… never feels long at 138 minutes, but it certainly feels epic. It’s a big, ridiculous film full of stunts, practical effects, giant crowds of extras, gorgeous old cars and beat-up old airplanes. It’s also got a lovely recurring gag with one actress playing six different women of different nationalities. It’s dated, unfortunately so in a couple of places, but it’s still a very good and very funny film.

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