Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (Blu-ray Review)13 Aug, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox, Terry-Thomas.
Though Dr. Strangelove easily survived its heavy-handed secondary title (“or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”), this brand of marquee buster always came off, at least to me, as a sign of shaky front-office confidence during the trait’s mid-‘60s heyday.
If not an indication of all-out desperation (as when MGM marketing hacks slapped “Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck” on Roman Polanski’s in some ways elegantly macabre The Fearless Vampire Killers) — these appendages attempted, at the very least, to tell unsophisticated audiences who may have been on the fence that “worry not; we’re going to play this one to the third balcony.” Which, in the case of 20th Century-Fox’s 1965 Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines: or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes, was likely a major consideration — given that in larger cities, “roadshow” (or inflated reserved-seat) prices were being charged for what was, for starters, a Stuart Whitman movie.
Of course, to justify those heftier admissions, Machines was shot in glorious 70mm Todd-AO. And this is the primary reason home viewing enthusiasts will have a first-class stumper on their hands if they strive to determine whether it is 1954’s Zanuck-Curtiz The Egyptian or this release that ranks as the greatest-looking jewel Twilight Time has yet put out on Blu-ray. Then, as now, Machines is a little too broad for my taste — and now, as then, I prefer the era’s other sprawling all-star epic comedies: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Blake Edwards’ The Great Race (which is only a little funnier but feels like more of an auteur work). And as a pioneer aviation comedy, I much prefer Edwards’ cult flop Darling Lili, though it’s one of the movies that almost sank Paramount in the early ’70s. But director/co-writer Ken Annakin’s real-life love for aviation permeates every frame of Machines, and the movie is so beautiful to look at that I hope I can find the time to take another flier with it fairly soon.
Between her 70mm orgasm in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, comfy poolside nudity in Joseph Losey’s swan song Steaming and, of course, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea with her infamously randy Playboy promotional photos with Kris Kristofferson, I always associate Sarah Miles with a certain kind of free-spirited motion picture experience. Thus, it’s something of a surprise seeing Miles in a ‘PG’-equivalent (the MPAA rating system hadn’t begun yet) playing the daughter of the Brit newspaper magnate (Robert Morley) who sponsors an English Channel air race in the early days of flying when it was just a challenge putting a plane in the air (much less for 25 hours and 11 minutes). Her character does end up losing her skirt about a million times here, but her undergarments are probably better fortified with material than the planes are. The closest thing to nudity here is an enticing outdoor shot of Irina Demick posing for a painter — one where the bottom frame-line cuts off just at the point where un-liberated ’60s mothers would have been shielding the eyes of male youngsters who thought they were just going to get an airplane comedy (hey, kids: just wait one more year until Fox gives you Ursula Andress in 1966’s The Blue Max). It’s probably a backdoor compliment, but I mean it at face value: of all the Darryl Zanuck mistresses who ever parlayed their charms into movie deals, Demick (who plays a multitude of roles here) is the only one the camera seemed to like. She was a memorable sight riding that bike in Mr. Z’s The Longest Day, too.
To charm the international trade, the picture also paraded an array of familiar art house faces of the day: Italy’s Alberto Sordi, France’s Jean-Pierre Cassel and Germany’s Gert Frobe, who had just hit it huge in his previous picture playing the title role in Goldfinger (man, could he point a laser or what?). All this and some inspired Red Skelton as well (his final big-screen appearance) — plus, I have to believe this is the only movie ever to feature both Benny Hill (as a fire chief) and Flora Robson. Though not the ultimate in star power, Whitman, Miles and James Fox are easy to take as the three points of a love triangle (Whitman is the Yank contestant; no surprise there), and here you have to give credit to an actor who, at least in ’65, knew how to diversify his portfolio. In a time span of less than six months, audiences could first see Whitman headlining a big-budget family comedy with funny-looking planes — and then take raw sexual advantage of Susannah York in Sands of the Kalahari before getting eaten alive by a marauding band of desert baboons who’d have been too humorless to appreciate Machines’ sweet nature.