Format: Movies! Channel on rockin’ flatscreen.
Once I saw the full title of tonight’s film, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes, I decided I’d type it once at the start of the review and refer to it as Those Magnificent Men every time after that. Seriously, it’s as if the filmmakers decided that having a really long title would make the film funnier. This is intended to be a comedy, after all. I’m also sure that in 1965, it was funny. But now it’s 50 years later and the things that were funny 50 years ago don’t always hold up.
Those Magnificent Men is a farce of a sort. It’s a film made in the same vein and spirit of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. However, instead of a cross-country race for treasure, it’s an airplane race from London to Paris in 1910, just seven years after the invention of powered flight. Airplane enthusiast and British officer Richard Mays (James Fox) is determined to improve the state of British aviation. To do so, he enlists the support of his girlfriend, Patricia Rawnsley (Sarah Miles). Patricia is the daughter of Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), a newspaper publisher. Intrigued by Richard’s idea, Lord Rawnsley sponsors a race from London to Paris, with a $50,000 cash prize for the winner.
Naturally, this attracts competitors from around the world, with each competitor fitting neatly into ethnic stereotypes. We get an amorous Frenchman with the very French name of Pierre Dubois (Jean-Pierre Cassel); an American cowboy named Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman); an excitable Italian named Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi); a Japanese pilot named Yamamoto who speaks perfect English (a dubbed Yujiro Ishihara); and a gaggle of regimented Germans led by Colonel Manfred Von Holstein (Gert Frobe).
What follows is a continual combination of two running plots. In the first, main plot, the various pilots meet and practice and get in each other’s way. This is furthered by the machination of Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas), who actively attempts to sabotage as many of the competitors as he can with the aid of his oft-abused manservant Courtney (Eric Sykes). The other main plot is the love triangle between Patricia, Orvil, and Richard. Richard and Patricia are something like an item at the start of the film, but Richard refuses to take her flying, while Orvil is more than happy to comply. The two men joust verbally and physically, each one landing a solid punch on the other at one point.
Then, finally, we get to the race. Percy Ware-Armitage’s sabotage knocks out a few competitors and some of the lesser lights are knocked out right away. Ware-Armitage attempts to cheat by putting his plane on a boat across the English Channel. Eventually, the competitors are sloly whittled down due to negligence, accident, incompetence, sabotage, or bad luck. The ending is more or less what we expect to see.
The biggest issue with Those Magnificent Men is that it has aged very poorly. Most of the jokes might have been funny 50 years ago, but are absolutely telegraphed here. As a result, I didn’t find a great deal to laugh at here. But, when the practice airfield is set next to a sewage treatment plant, is it really a surprise when competitor after competitor ends up taking a dip in the sewage? Are we really surprised when the French pilot gets into a tiff with the German pilot? Or that the Italian pilot who has crashed every plane we’ve seen him in flies directly between the French/German duel and wrecks yet again?
An additional problem is the technology. It’s not surprising that a great deal of this was done with rear projection or similar, but most of it looks incredibly obvious. I can give the film a pass on that because of its age, but there are plenty of times when it’s evident that the footage is the real thing. It ends up just looking weird.
The biggest sin, though, is that I didn’t crack a single smile while watching, not from the opening credits with Red Skelton clowning with ancient airplane inventions through to the credits that call back to the opening. I’ve no doubt that Those Magnificent Men was made with the best of intentions and probably was funny when it was made. It just isn’t any more, and that’s the biggest sin a comedy can commit.
Why to watch Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes: Well, there’s Gert Frobe...
Why not to watch: It hasn’t aged well, particularly in terms of its view of various nationalities.
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