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Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

Facts are facts — flying is the safest form of travel. Such doesn't stop many aerophobic passengers from downing three Tanquerays and a Vicodin as soon as they're firmly seated in coach-class, but the inherent danger of flight is a myth, and its steadfastness can be attributed to three things: 1) When airliners crash, they usually do so in spectacular fashion; 2) The number of aviation deaths in combat during the first two World Wars is a grim statistic of 20th century history; and 3) When men first taught themselves how to fly, it actually was dangerous. But that era's hazards are what gave early aviators a dash of romance and derring-do — so much so that today's buttoned-down corporate airline pilots are afforded a similar élan. Perhaps aerophobia will be around as long as powered flight retains its magic and mystery. With films like Ken Annakin's Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes (1965) arriving on DVD, people who hate to fly will find even more reasons to stay earthbound. Annakin's sprightly comedy concerns a London-to-Paris air-race in 1910. Troubled that the English have lagged far behind their American and French competitors during the first years of flight, military officer Richard Mays (James Fox) decides he must convince the wealthy Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley) to sponsor an aerial competition that will attract the world's foremost aviators. Rawnsley agrees to put up £10,000, but he also expects an Englishman to win. The handsome young Mays is just the man for the job — particularly since he intends to marry Rawnsley's daughter Patricia (Sarah Miles). After the race is duly publicized, flyers from around the globe converge on southern England. One in particular, American cowboy Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman), takes a keen eye to the noble Patricia. She also takes a liking to him — her father won't let Mays take her on a flight, but Orvil has no problem showing Patricia the world from the sky. While it's not intended to be anything more than an epic-length comedy in 1960s fashion, Annakin's script for Those Magnificent Men (co-written with Jack Davies) loses points for cultural creativity — the international competitors (which, in films like these, always seems limited to G8 trading partners) are nothing more than stereotypes fenced by barbed-wire, with the stuffy Englishmen (Terry-Thomas plays a scheming competitor), the love-stricken Frenchman (a running gag has him meeting the same woman repeatedly, but always of a different nationality), the hyper-breeding Italian (always traveling with his wife and about a dozen kids), the smart, aloof Japanese flyer (his plane is painted like a kite), and priggish Germans who stomp about in the sort of way that always makes folks laugh (or at least British audiences back then always seemed to think it was funny). It's all harmless fun, since every group is lampooned more or less equally, but it certainly doesn't elevate the comedy much past improv night at the community theater. Where Magnificent Men is a standout is in its aeronautical authenticity. Plenty of blue-screen process shots are used — even today there would be no way to shoot a lot of the close-up work — but Annakin's crew also reconstructed 20 authentic monoplanes and biplanes, all circa 1910, and the film's daunting pilots managed to achieve controlled flight for the cameras, including some remarkable stunt-flying. Perhaps it runs a bit too long (2:20), and perhaps it isn't terribly funny. But Annakin's homage to airmen is generally charming, and as much loved by aviation enthusiasts as The Battle of Britain. Fox's DVD release of Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from what looks to be a flawless source-print with rich color, while audio comes in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Supplements include an assured commentary from director Annakin, the featurette "Conversations with Ken Annakin" (16 min.) in which the director dishes some behind-the-scenes details, three stills galleries, including a look at historical aircraft, storyboards, and two trailers. Keep-case.
—JJB



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