Judge Russell Engebretson gave up his steam-powered aeroplane project upon discovering his backyard was not zoned for a runway.
They go up, diddly, up-up. They go down, diddly, down-down.
An American vies with an Englishman for a lady and the lead in a crowded 1910 London-to-Paris air race.
Facts of the Case
The plot of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes (Blu-ray) is simplicity itself: In 1910, a stuffy British newspaper publisher, Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley, A Study in Terror), is persuaded to bankroll an international airplane race from London to Paris which will include a competitor from each of several countries. Rawnsley is convinced that coverage of the race will boost the circulation of his newspaper and also prove a feather in the cap for England when its aviator inevitably snags the trophy. However, the competition proves stiffer than Rawnsley had counted on when Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman, The Comancheros), ace aviator from America, enters the race. Much to Lord Rawnsley's consternation, not only is Orvil a crackerjack airman, but he is attracted to Rawnsley's spoken-for daughter Patricia (Sarah Miles, Blow-Up), a vivacious suffragette whose eye also begins to wander towards Orvil.
Between the potentially explosive love triangle, full-scale recreations of turn-of-the-century airplanes, a lineup of first-class British actors, and a waste treatment plant located inconveniently nearby the airfield, a series of comedic disasters is the only possible outcome.
For a brief period, roughly from the late fifties through the mid sixties, "road show" movies were all the rage—lengthy, extravagantly budgeted films that usually received special 70mm showings in a select few widescreen theaters, only later making the rounds as 35mm prints in lesser cinematic venues. Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the first and best comic road show film, was a big hit in 1963, while Those Magnificent Men made its 1965 debut only two weeks prior to Blake Edwards' The Great Race, a slapstick turn-of-the-century auto race from New York to Paris. The foregoing movies were essentially races and chases with a grand prize at the finish line for the winner, but only Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines was purely an air race. It was a spectacle of antique aviation that has never been matched, thanks to Allen H. Wheeler's splendid replicas of early twentieth-century flying machines, and the daring stuntmen who piloted the array of monoplanes, biplanes, and triplanes (and in one case, a twenty-wing multiplane.)
Of course, all the wonderful special effects would be for naught without a great cast. Most of the film's actors are in retirement or have been treading the boards of that great stage in the sky for many years now. Gert Fröbe, fresh from his role as Bond's arch nemesis in Goldfinger, does a complete about face here and plays a comically pompous German who cannot make a move without first consulting an instruction manual. The splendid, gap toothed Terry-Thomas, the ultimate comic cad of cinema, steals every scene he's in as the Brit bounder, Sir Percy Ware-Armitage. In smaller roles are Benny Hill as a harried fire chief who never gets a proper nap atop his watchtower and Red Skelton (in his final film role) as a series of unsuccessful wannabe flying characters. The only actor who strikes a somewhat false note is Stuart Whitman as the leading man—better known for his rugged guy roles—who plays a Texan (sans Texas accent) in his usual straightforward, no-nonsense style. There is nothing wrong with his performance, but I can only wistfully imagine how much better suited a young Tony Curtis or Dick Van Dyke would have been for this broad and wacky comedy.
A short historical footnote before launching into the picture and sound quality of Those Magnificent Men: Mike Todd, Broadway producer and a partner in Cinerama Productions, whose son directed the famous roller coaster sequence in This is Cinerama), developed the Tod-AO 70mm standard as a replacement for the expensive three-projector setup required for a Cinerama theater. He called it "Cinerama outta one hole." I was fortunate to have caught a few Cinerama pictures in the sixties, and though the Tod-AO 70mm does not match Cinerama in sheer immersive depth, it's a close runner-up.
The beautiful restoration of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines does justice to the 70mm print, and on a large display such as a home front projector, the 2.20:1 1080p Blu-ray is pure eye candy. The colors are bright and vivid, with realistic flesh tones. Detail is excellent: the scene in which a flier is treading water while hanging from his airplane reveals seams in the painted canvas flat of the sky in the background. In some of the blue screen work (most of which is very well-done), it's easy to spot flaws in the traveling mattes under the mercilessly detailed high resolution of this fine transfer. The only obvious digital glitch occurs in one scene in a crowded room when the camera pans across the revelers, and a wooden post in the foreground macroblocks for a split second. Really, there is very little to fault in this lovingly restored picture.
The audio is also wonderfully restored. Likely derived from the Westrex 70mm six-track, the 5.0 DTS-HD Master Audio delivers sound that is clear and dynamic, from the thrumming roar of prop engines to the sound of wind rushing past the planes. Speech is clear and natural sounding, with no distortion or tinniness. As with the other Twilight Time releases, the audio can be played as an isolated track. Ron Goodwin's score is classic, especially the hummable theme song that is impossible to dislodge from your brain once heard. It was actually more popular than the movie, and probably better remembered today.
The Twilight Time limited edition Blu-rays generally do not contain extras beyond the isolated soundtracks, but this one includes an archive worthy audio commentary (ported over from the 2004 DVD) from director Ken Annakin, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 94. His discussion of the movie is exhaustive, informative, and totally non-fluffy. It's a fascinating listen for anyone interested in film history of that era. Also included is an essay printed on a full-color eight-page glossy booklet, with a reproduction of the movie poster on the back.
Viewing movies through a scrim of nostalgia often clouds one's critical faculties. However, at the time of their release I adored The Great Race and was only marginally entertained by Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Now I find most of the former movie rather painful to watch, whereas Those Magnificent Men is considerably more appealing to me at this late date. It's possible that after a certain advanced age, even nostalgia begins to lose its seductive attraction.
Those who saw this movie at the theater and enjoyed it will likely still enjoy it today, and even younger viewers may find it at least mildly amusing and perhaps be impressed by the derring-do of those magnificent stunt fliers in their genuine replica flying machines.
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