"Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" recalls that marvelous moment in time when man finally conquered the air but didn't quite know what to do with that skill.
It's also a hearty example of mid-60s filmmaking, when grand ambitions, improving visual effects and frothy comedy all worked in unison to create an undeniably giddy treat.
The film, originally dubbed, "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines - Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 minutes," labors under a running time nearly as long as its title. It's a mite too enamored with the hastily assembled machines which cough and wheeze their way into the clouds. The pilots, a gregarious bunch based on genial stereotypes, keep the story grounded just enough to hold it all together.
"Machines," just released on Blu-ray via Twilight Time, opens in 1910 with British newspaper magnate Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley) eager to expand his nation's naval superiority to the skies. The headstrong Lord decides to hold a contest to bring the best and brightest aero-technology to England's doorstep. He sponsors a cross-channel, London to Paris air race with a gaudy prize.
Fellow Brit Richard (James Fox) is raring to enter the race, but he's distracted by his feminist girlfriend Patricia (Sarah Miles) who longs to join Richard in the air.
Patricia quickly catches the eye of Orvil (Stuart Whitman), a brash American pilot on hand for the race.
That love triangle is routinely interrupted by elaborate plane stunts and the antics of the race contestants who hail from Italy, Japan, Germany and France. Yes, "Machines" falls lazily back on cultural templates - the French pilot is a lover! The Germans are stern and unyielding! The presentation is never mean spirited, and within the context of the frothy material it's hardly a detriment to the finely orchestrated mayhem.
These "Flying Machines" remain a work in progress, a reflection of an era when the power of flight was like Popeye sans spinach. Director Ken Annakin ("Battle of the Bulge") indulges in fast motion, arduous reaction shots and other coarse tics to broaden the air-based humor. Modern audiences may squirm at some sequences, but the neat stunt work and game crew transcend the broad behavior.
Whitman sends up the image of Americans as loud and unwilling to take "no" for an answer, but it's Miles' performance that anchors the love triangle and the picture at large. She's a thoroughly modern gal who isn't above using her femininity - and the victimhood it implies circa 1910 - to get what she needs. Miles takes what could have been a frustrating character and keeps us on her side. It's a fine slight of hand nearly lost among the tangle of airplane crashes and flight sequences.
Fans of bawdy British comedy will appreciate seeing Benny Hill in a small but amusing part sans his usual gaggle of pretty ladies.
"Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" lacks any significant Blu-ray extras, but the production material includes insight into the film's creation. Annakin's childhood flight with Sir Alan Cobham, a long-distance flying pioneer, helped cement the lad's love for the skies.
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