In spite of the fact Twentieth Century-Fox had just overcome a state of near-bankruptcy after Cleopatra (1963), the studio felt sufficiently confident in green-lighting another super-production with an international cast and grandiose production values wrought from superb locations in Britain and France.
The story idea for Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines stemmed from director Ken Annakin and co-writer Jack Davies (Laughter in Paradise, It Started in Naples), but the production’s huge scope likely stemmed, at the very least, from the success of the decade’s ultimate mega-comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World [M] (1963), which packed a mass of stars into one long chase film, and threw in a multitude of verbal and sight gags within its bloated running time.
Instead of piling on scene after scene of micro-vignettes for the sizeable cast, director / co-writer Ken Annakin largely kept the focus on a slight love triangle between American pilot Orvil Newton (Fox’ contract star Stuart Whitman), snotty English pilot Richard Mays (a dashing Edward Fox), and pale but supple Patricia Rawnsley (Sarah Miles), Richard’s fiancée, and the daughter of the race’s sponsor (Robert Morley, who remains in a perpetual state of distaste).
The race, however, isn’t secondary, because it’s the raison d’etre for shooting such a grand production in Todd-AO, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a truly gorgeous HD transfer. The colours are rich, the details quite fine (some of the studio tank backgrounds are crystal clear in a few shots), and some of Christopher Challis’ shots have a slight 3D quality.
Because the film grew from a coherent story, Flying has a solid structure, balancing time between the three main leads as well as notable secondary characters – flamboyant Italian flyer Count Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi), pompous Prussian Colonel Von Holstein (Gert Frobe, mouthing his own boom-box brass band like a modern day rapper), and French flyer Pierre Dubois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who keeps encountering the same girl in different towns and countries (played by Irina Demck, ex-squeeze of Fox CEO Darryl F. Zanuck). The main foil for the group is arrogant English shit Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (gap-toothed Terry-Thomas), and his vain sabotaging of rival planes prior to the race.
Lesser characters like Japanese flyer Yamamoto (Yujiro Ishihara, dubbed with a stark British voice) are dispensed into the ocean by the film’s mid-point (the film does indeed have an Intermission), while other characters quietly vanish, like Orvil Newton’s business partner George (Sam Wanamaker), but each provides some nuances in this surprisingly brisk comedy which Annakin and co-writer Davies also use to push a little aviation history.
The film opens with an amusing chronicle of Mankind’s failed flight attempts through the ages via Red Skelton, but the vignettes of crashing contraptions also function as a lead-in to the unconventionalplane designs realized by the characters for the lengthy race (designs that are also quite similar to the beautiful title animations created by the brilliant cartoonist Ronald Searle).
The motif of fanciful (and ridiculous) flight designs continues into the first act via the Italian flyer, who auditions increasingly ludicrous contraptions procured by a mad inventor before settling on a genuinely practical aeroplane; and the diverse designs used by the contestants which vary in wings and propeller placement yet all manage to carry their pilots through the air without any technical flaws. The second unit photography by Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire, Puppet on a Chain) captures real planes in flight during the race and close fly-bys by teasing characters – footage that would largely be CGI today instead of building actual vehicles and coordinating complex stunt sequences.
Beneath the film’s main story strands and comedic vignettes are little bits of social commentary, including Patricia Rawnsley’s desire to become a pilot in spite of her father and fiancee’s ridicule; and the pre-WWI tensions between the Brits, the French, the Italians, and the Germans, delivered in amiable if not slapstick send-ups. (The best and most elaborate remains the duel between the German and French contingent, with both pilots in moored balloons, attempting to shoot the other’s inflated orb with blunderbusses.)
TT’s Blu-ray sports the director’s commentary track from Fox’ 2004 DVD, and throughout the largely consistent narrative Annakin goes through the film’s genesis and production history. Annakin's calm, decisive description of major stunts and location work reveal a pro fully comfortable with complex productions, and it's no wonder Annakin's other notable works includes the British sequences in The Longest Day (1962), and the epic Battle of the Bulge (1965).
Unique to the DVD release, however, is a 17 min. featurette (“Conversations with Ken Annakin”). Lavishly illustrated with snapshots, artwork, and vivid descriptions of the unique planes and stunt work, the featurette offers a good breakdown of the film's unusually quick turnover from screenplay to finished film, with an international cast that includes a very young James Fox, and scene-stealing Jean-Pierre Cassel (father of Vincent Cassel). Stuart Whitman had already appeared in several noteworthy British films by the time Flying was offered, and director Annakin discusses initial casting choices, and recounts several juicy and amusing anecdotes of conflicts & relationships, and adding unscripted moments that merely enhanced already memorable characters.
Also unique to the Fox DVD is a huge series of still galleries, arranged to cover major production stages. (These have been organized with large text cards, and were perhaps originally intended for a planned but unreleased laserdisc edition.)
TT’s own extras include an appreciative essay by Julie Kirgo, trailers, and an isolated score track showcasing Ron Goodwin’s appropriately raucous score. The film’s DTS mix is very expansive, and Goodwin’s elegant music really envelopes the drama, with raucous brass flare-ups between broad gags.
Unlike the Paramount-produced sequel, Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies [M] (1969), studio Fox allowed Annakin plenty of screen time to develop the story and striking visuals for this affectionate poke at early aviation history.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan