"Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" is a lark, a piffle, a reminder that big-budget movie-making for pure entertainment existed long before the blockbuster era. It is probably as well remembered today for its period-authentic aircraft as it is for the charmingly goofy theme song, which was released as a hit single.
"Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.
They Go Up, Tiddly, Up, Up.
They Go Down, Tiddly, Down, Down."
Featuring a bunch of no-names with a few midlevel stars as bait -- Benny Hill and Red Skelton make cameos -- the film is set in 1910 and is about a fictional air race from London to Paris sponsored by a newspaper magnate who's keen on aviation. The idea was to show people that this crazy notion of humans flying through the air was something that could be safe and reliable as transportation.
Of course, more planes crash than make it to the finish line. Though, in the miraculous way of film comedies, nobody is ever seriously hurt.
I've always been fascinated by this era of flying. Just a few years after these contraptions were cobbled together, often by amateur enthusiasts working in barns and garages, they would be deployed as serious machines of war. Soon after World War I ended, commercial flying took off, and suddenly the world became a much smaller place.
Director Ken Annakin, who co-wrote the script with Jack Davies, was a flying nut himself and committed to making the planes and stunts as real -- or at least real-looking -- as possible. They built a lot of aircraft using vintage blueprints, or mocked up their own. The result is the movie acts as something of a time capsule, showing us what nascent aviation looked like.
Annakin was a busy filmmaker who specialized in popular fare, including a bunch of stuff for Disney, but also tackled big-budget war dramas like "The Longest Day" and "Battle of the Bulge." He actively made feature films from the 1940s through the 1990s, and even had a Genghis Khan biopic come out a year after his death in 2009.
(Annakin is an old Anglo-Saxon surname, so I doubt George Lucas named his "Star Wars" central character after the filmmaker, which was my first thought.)
Competitors arrive from all over the globe with all sorts of zany machines to fly. The Japanese pilot (Yujiro Ishihara) is considered the favorite, based on his highly advanced yellow biplane.
But he's felled -- along with several others -- by the machinations of Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas), a snobby and extravagantly mustachioed nobleman who sees sabotaging the aircraft of his competition as key to his winning strategy. He even pays some seamen to ferry his wobbly plane across the English Channel aboard their ship, then pretend he flew the whole way. Not unlike some modern marathon runners pulling similar tricks.
James Fox plays Richard Mays, a stiff British officer who also is wooing the daughter of Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), the man whose newspaper is sponsoring the race. Sarah Miles is Patricia, the daring young proto-feminist, who rides a motorcycle on the sly and yearns to go up in a plane, though daddy forbids it.
For some reason, the makeup artists on the production slather Miles' face with gobs of blush and eye shadow, to the point she resembles Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter in her closeups. It's almost like there was a concerted effort to make her less attractive.
Stuart Witman plays Orvil Newton, the American cowpoke who brings his outdated flyer across the sea to compete for the huge cash prize. Wearing a 10-gallon hat and jeans that would be considered too tight even by Tony Manero from "Saturday Night Fever," he forms the main competition to Mays -- both for the trophy and Patricia's affections.
Alberto Sordi plays Ponticelli, the Italian count who doesn't need the money but does need a plane, as his tend to make too much tender acquaintance with the ground. Jean-Pierre Cassel plays the French hope, Pierre Dubois, who keeps getting sidetracked by a series of identical women wherever he lands, all played by Irina Demick, at whom he pitches woo.
Gert Fröbe is a hoot as the German competitor, Colonel Manfred von Holstein, who knows literally nothing about flying but is convinced that "a German officer can do anything." After training up a younger and much slimmer man as pilot, he jumps in the cockpit himself when the fellow turns ill. (Courtesy of Sir Percy.) He's a by-the-book man, so he follows the instructions to a T, including the first one, "Sit down."
Probably the most famous scene in the movie is von Holstein hanging upside-down from his plane as it flies a few feet above the sea, his feet flailing wildly as he tries to "run" along the surface of the ocean. Achieved with wires and camera trickery, it's something straight out of Bugs Bunny.
I wondered about the geopolitical implications of "Magnificent Men," even though this is not the sort of film to invite such contemplation. There seems to me something problematic with poking fun at the martial rigidity of the Germans, given that in a few years after the film's timeline they would launch a deadly war, followed by another.
This film came out around the same time "Hogan's Heroes" debuted on American television, so maybe everyone felt 20 years after WWII was enough to treat the Germans as the butt of the joke again.