Written by Ken Annakin & Jack Davies
Directed by Ken Annakin
Starring Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox, Alberto Sordi, Robert Morley, Gert FrÃ¶be, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Irina Demick, Eric Sykes, Terry-Thomas, and Red Skelton
- Running audio commentary by director Annakin
- Featurette: “Conversations with Ken Annakin”
- Behind the Scenes Gallery
- Visual Effects Gallery
- Historical Aircraft Gallery
- Theatrical Trailers
Released by: Fox Home Entertainment.
My Advice: Don’t bother unless you’re really, really interested in early flight.
[ad#longpost]In 1910, man is finally reaching the sky. Most of the time. Actually, there are as many crashes as takeoffs. Air enthusiast Richard Mays (Fox) thinks that getting a bunch of aviators together sharing ideas and engaging in friendly competition will help out the infant industry. So he, with his girl Patricia Rawnsley (Miles), forwards this idea to newspaperman Lord Rawnsley (Morley). He sets a grand air race between London and Paris for Â£10,000. With the huge cash prize and international pride at stake, the competition gets decidedly unfriendly. The German entrant (FrÃ¶be) is flying literally by the book, the French contestant (Cassel) is getting up to more than flying, and the Italian flyer (Sordi) is going through airplanes faster than you can say ciao. The American airman/cowboy Orvil Newton (Whitman) is busy making the moves on Patricia and Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas) is busy trying to win through sabotage and skullduggery. With all this drama going on, it won’t be which of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines will win, but whether or not they make it to Paris at all.
Comedies with heavy special effects are a hit or miss affair. While Men In Black and Ghostbusters are very funny and look amazing, more often than not filmmakers concentrate on the effects more than the comedy. Here, the movie faithfully reproduces the airplanes of the period well enough and the breakdowns they suffered, but the comedy aspect isn’t given the same attention. The scenes that feature slapstick try to reproduce the Keystone Kops in their energy and ridiculousness but they feel too staged and thought out. They lack the special genius you get from watching Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. Probably seen as a coup by the filmmakers, having the gifted comedian Red Skelton in the introduction and conclusion just highlights the rest of the movie’s contrived nature.
The writers are also lazy by relying on the broad national stereotyping for most of its comedy. You know that the Germans are overly pompous, the Italians are overly enthusiastic, and the French are overly romantic. And of course the American is a cowboy in boots and a string tie. Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t insult people because of their nationality, but you should at least put some intelligence, style, or effort into it. None of that seems to be present here. Another example of the lack of imagination in the script is the well-worn tactic of adding a love triangle to ratchet up the conflict where it isn’t needed (for a modern example, see Pearl Harbor). At the time, the spectacular aerial effects glossed over these defects, but now they just look dated and don’t help make the movie very watchable.
Because of the aerial effects, most of the features focus on those portions of the film. The two photo galleries detail the visual effects done and the historical airplanes in the movie. The other gallery deals more with the various stars and location shots. The nice thing about the galleries is they include text that explain what the pictures are and who’s in them. Usually DVDs dump these pictures without any explanation about what they are, which drives me up the freaking wall. There are also some storyboards showing the complex setup needed some for some of the scenes.
The disc also includes an interview and a commentary with the director. This is becoming one of my pet peeves when a commentary essentially rehashes what is said in a behind the scenes featurette. Have one or the other, not both–some of us actually watch both. It also doesn’t help when the director has a droning flat delivery and suffers from a need to provide commentary for the blind by talking about what can be seen on screen. And from the director’s comments, you can see that his focus was more on the special effects for the movie, not on its comedy. And since the sense of spectacle the film must have generated in its time has faded–and the features do little to prop up things with context–only dedicated film or aviation buffs should bother with Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.