Skip to main content

The trouble with these international affairs is they attract foreigners.


Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines 
or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes
(1965)

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 2 hours 20 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.

***


Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.