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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

The Great Race was not the only film of 1965 about contests involving new technology in the first decade of the twentieth century. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, directed by Ken Annakin, is about an airplane race between London and Paris in 1910. Then it took over a day; today, for supersonic jets, it takes seven minutes.

I found this film to be in two distinct parts. The part before the intermission, which is about an hour and a half, tedious. It's the set up for the race, where all the characters are introduced. The race is the brainchild of a publisher (Robert Morley), who was encouraged to promote flying in England by his daughter's boyfriend (James Fox). The daughter is Sarah Miles, who wants to fly, but her father forbids it.

The race brings aviators from all over the world. Flying had only been invented seven years earlier, and there were no air forces yet, so these men were mostly dilettantes and daredevils. We get a lot of stereotypes: The French flyer (Jean-Pierre Cassel) is crazy about women, the Germans, led by Gert Frobe, are strictly by the book, the Italian is surrounded by his large family. The American is a cowboy (Stuart Whitman) who takes a fancy to Miles, so he and Fox become romantic rivals, while the villain is Terry-Thomas, who tries to sabotage the other racers.

The film is a comedy, and starts with a prologue featuring Red Skelton representing man's attempts at flight throughout the ages. It's not very funny, and I don't think I laughed once at the entire film, which mainly tries for yuks with people falling down or airplanes crashing (no one, of course, is hurt). People falling down is inherently funny, but you've got to do more with it, and this film just lays there, asking for us to laugh without giving us much reason to.

After the intermission I got interested, as it shows the race. The remarkable thing about Flying Machines is that reproductions of actual period planes were made and flown. There is a lot of terrific aerial footage, and it's easy to see how thrilling it must have been to be doing what was once thought impossible. Also, those people flew in the open air, and not very far off the ground. Fox, in the airplane he's flying, wears a cap and looks for all the world like he's taking a carriage ride around the park. It must have been exhilarating fun.

I would only recommend this film for aviation enthusiasts or a fan of a certain kind of British comedy.

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