Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines
or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes
Ken Anakin’s jocular air race movie falls into the minor subgenre of “epic” comedies that were being produced during this period, the best other example of which is probably It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. Like that film, Magnificent Men suffers from equating bigger spectacle and longer duration with amusing content. And, like that film, it offers one consistent saving grace in the form of caddish rotter Terry-Thomas.
Magnificent Men comes in at nearly two hours and twenty minutes, but it feels longer. The premise of a London to Paris air race featuring planes form the early days of manned flight (it is set in 1910) is loose and broad enough to unfurl a canvas hosting a whole raft of entrants and potential objects of humour. Much of the material riffs on national stereotypes, but the success of the gags (of very variable quality to begin with) is dependent on the comic abilities of the cast. Too many of the performers here just aren’t especially funny, and too many of the sequences are repetitive variations on a silly looking plane developing a fault, crashing, and the pilot ending up covered in sewage. I’m not levelling that charge in a high-minded way, but Annakin is so laborious and indulgent with his aviation fancy that he just lets scenes go on and on and on.
The “lead” characters turn out to be Stuart Whitman’s Yank, Orvil Newton (no doubt referencing the Wright brothers and Isaac), and Sarah Miles’ flying-mad Patricia Rawnsley. It’s her father, Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley doing exactly what Robert Morley always does) who is organising the race. She’s engaged to James Fox’s chinless toff Richard Mays, also an entrant. Then there’s T-T’s absolute stinker Sir Percy Ware-Armitage, Jean-Pierre Cassel’s sex-mad Pierre Dubois (he’s French, you see), Alberto Sordi’s virile Count Emilio Ponticelli (he’s Italian, you see) and Gert Fröbe’s highly-regimented Colonel Manfred Von Holstein (he’s German, you know). A dubbed Yujiro Ishihara makes a brief appearance as the Japanese contestant.
As with the loose sequel, the vastly superior Monte Carlo or Bust, the producers appear to think that a noble and heroic American character is necessary to ensure success across the Pond. Unfortunately, this means there is very little taking the piss out of our cousins; Tony Curtis fares much better in Monte Carlo as he’s a natural comedian, but Whitman is a bafflingly-cast charisma vacuum. His most memorable qualities are his jug lugs and what appears to be a padded shirt (no doubt to make him look extra-manly). Orvil’s budding romance with Patricia is tediously chemistry-free (Miles and Whitman reportedly hated each other), and the result is a film crippled from the off by its misplaced “star” casting. It doesn’t help that Ron Goodwin accompanies Orvil’s every scene with an irritating “Born under a Wanderin’ Star”, hokey, good ol’ cowboy theme.
Sordi and Cassel are unable to make much out of their upbeat Europeans, although the former does have a nice little scene with some nuns who are reluctant to aid him in getting back into the race until they learn a Protestant might win. Meanwhile Fox studiously essays his courteous upper class chap (in other words, he’s not very funny). Miles is okay, but she doesn’t look her best hidden under layers of make-up.
So it’s left to a couple of pros to milk the laughs for all they’re worth. Terry-Thomas delights in being a frightfully awful bounder, plotting sabotage at every turn and surreptitiously making the channel crossing by boat (with his plane aboard). He’s aided and abetted by Eric Sykes as his only-so-loyal servant Courtney; the duo have a magnificent rapport, with the beleaguered Sykes ever more repelled by his master’s machinations. They’re as much, if not even more, fun in Monte Carlo or Bust. Gert Fröbe, who would also return to greater effect in Monte Carlo, is very nearly as good. His pompous belief that there is nothing a German officer cannot do, and strict adherence to the instruction manual (“Step one: sit down”), confirm that some nations are more dependable than others in eliciting an easy laugh.
The film is sprinkled with recognisable comedy actors, including Benny Hill, Tony Hancock, Willie Rushton and John Le Mesurier (as a French artist!) There are also some curious running jokes that don’t work, such as Irinia Demick appearing in six different roles as the object of Cassel’s lust.
Ultimately Annakin goes wrong by assuming his audience will be as enraptured by this odd assortment of flying vehicles as he is. Additionally, he takes an age to actually get the race started (it seems like a good hour). But, the theme song is as irresistibly catchy as ever, and Ronald Searle’s titles set the tone perfectly. And, the success of Magnificent Men paved the way for Monte Carlo or Bust four years later. Contrary to received opinion, it is far more than a just so-so auto-fixated cash-in and improves on its predecessor in almost every respect.