Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines; Or, How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes

(UK, 1965)

(Second Review) I vividly recall seeing this for the first time. It was the summer after my graduation and I was working for my Uncle Chuck in Detroit, earning money for incidentals to be used at Michigan State, where I would start in September. (I blew most of it going to movies.) It was a roadshow engagement, at the Cinerama theater, with reserved seats and an intermission. It had me right from the opening credits, which consist of a series of jokes about Red Skelton trying to fly. This segued into a delightful series of sketches by the brilliant artist Ronald Searle, backed up by an extremely catchy song that I find myself humming to this day.

If you love airplanes and aviation, as I do, this is a must-see. I can’t think of a single other film that concerns flying machines back as early as 1910, when this is set. Remember, it was only seven years after Wilbur Wright first took to the air. It was still four years until the start of the Great War, when technology pushed aviation in a great leap, so that the planes that were flying in 1918 were much, much better than the ones we see here. In 1910, you really were risking your life every time you left the ground. Crashing was totally expected; you just had to hope you didn’t fall from too great a height at too great a speed. Engines were totally unreliable, and these flimsy little kites were ridiculously under-powered. And yet, people took to the air.

The story is almost as flimsy as the flying machines, with a set of contestants from various countries racing the almost unimaginable distance between the two capitals, including flying over the vast gap of the English Channel. They are all stereotypes: The by-the-book German (Gert Fröbe), the romantic Frenchman (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the volatile Italian (Alberto Sordi). Only the Englishman (James Fox) and the American (Stuart Whitman) are fleshed out a little, as they compete for the attention of fly-crazy Sarah Miles. Robert Morley and Terry-Thomas are also in the cast.

But who the hell cares? It’s all about the aeroplanes. It was a labor of love from the director, Ken Annakin. The planes are a mix of actual antiques and replica machines built to reasonably accurate specs from 1910. (Except for the engines. Nobody was eager to go up with a 35-hp mill you wouldn’t use for a radio-controlled midget these days). They were flown by enthusiasts who sometimes had to make alterations for safety, like adding ailerons to kites that had originally used wing-warping to steer.

When they are in the air it is a wonderful sight to see. The DVD I have contains extensive information about the making of the film, and the planes themselves. There is also a very comprehensive article in Wikipedia. Again, if you like flying, you must see this. Plus, the cars of 1910 are great to see. Robert Morley pootles about in a 1907 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost said to be worth $35,000,000. Yikes!