In 1965, there were two big comedy spectacle films that were period pieces focusing on long distance races. Both ended up being among the biggest films of the year. One was Blake Edwards’ “The Great Race” which focused on a New York to Paris road race. It came in at #6 on the top 10 for the year. But beating it out at #4 was a British production about a London to Paris air race at the dawn of the aviation age. It’s full title is “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or How I Flew from London to Paris 25 Hours 11 Minutes.” Apparently spoilers in the title was not a concern in 1965.
The film begins with a young British woman named Patricia Rawnsley (Sarah Miles) who is obsessed with flying. Army officer Richard Mays (James Fox) is a flyer who is trying to win her hand, but Patricia seems only to be interested in him because of the prospect of going up in his plane. Yet, he continues to refuse her requests to fly. To help push Britain to the forefront of aviation, Patricia and Richard come up with the idea of a London to Paris race with a 10,000 pound prize…which will be bankrolled by Patricia’s pompous father, Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley).
The race draws contestants from all over the world. Among them are the Italian aviation enthusiast Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi), French flyier Pierre Dubois (Jeanne-Pierre Cassell), and German Colonel Holstein (Gert Frobe). Representing America is Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman), a cowboy from Arizona who regularly takes tourists up in his plane. This fact immediately catches the interest of Patricia who begins to see Orvil as a better opportunity for her to finally get to fly. Richard represents England in the race, but another Brit is determined to get the prize himself, the villainous, gap-toothed, Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas).
The contestants all assemble at an airfield that will serve as the starting point, and practice facility. There is a resident fire brigade at the facility, under the command of Benny Hill, due to the frequent crashes. The first 90 minutes of the film, is pretty much just getting ready for the race. A flyer goes up, some mishap happens, hilarity ensues…though to use the term “hilarity” is generous. Some of the situations are funny and others are just mildly amusing.
After the intermission (yep, this is a long one folks) the race finally begins. In general, the 2nd half of the film is a bit more rewarding than the first, but it takes so long to get there. I fear many modern audiences may lose patience with the film before the payoff. Still, the film ends up being not as madcap as I think it wants to be. The opening sequence of the movie, which features Red Skelton in a sort of “history of aviation” sequence, does a good job of setting the tone for a big wacky comedy, but the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to it.
I do think the film suffers a bit from having too many characters. In “The Great Race,” you basically just have the handsome hero and the scheming villain. Here, Whitman is the main hero…Fox is his competition for the girl, but he isn’t really a villain. The Germans serve as villains to some of the characters…while Thomas, who I think is supposed to be the main baddie, doesn’t really have a clear nemesis. The film would’ve been better had it focused on Whitman as the hero with Thomas battling against him.
Even if some of the comedy falls a bit short, one very enjoyable aspect of the film is all the great vintage aircraft that are used used. My interest in aircrafts doesn’t extend much beyond the hope that the one I’m sitting on gets me where I need to go, but these planes do make the film very intriguing. I mean, these things are the real deal…we’re well before special effects artists would’ve been able to effectively recreate this sort of stuff.
Oddly enough, I ended up watching this film in the St. Louis airport while experiencing a major delay that ended up turning a 3 hour trip into an 18 hour trip…which made the film’s final joke about how we maybe haven’t really come so far in aviation really hit home for me. It’s not a fantastic film, but I certainly could’ve found worse ways to spend the day in the airport.