Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965): Ken Annakin’s Oscar-Nominated, British Satire of Aviation, Starring Stuart Whitman, Red Skelton and Big International Cast

Directed and co-written by Ken Annakin, Men in their Flying Machines; Or, How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes is a 1965 British period comedy film that satirizes the early years of aviation.

The film stars an international ensemble cast, including Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, Robert Morley, Terry-Thomas, James Fox, Red Skelton, Benny Hill, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Gert Fröbe and Alberto Sordi.

Based on a screenplay entitled Flying Crazy, the fictional account is set in 1910, when press magnate Lord Rawnsley offers £10,000 to the winner of the Daily Post air race from London to Paris to prove that Britain is “number one in the air.”

Director Ken Annakin became interested in aviation, when pioneering aviator, Sir Alan Cobham took him up in flight in biplane. Later in the Second World War, Annakin had served in the RAF when he had begun his career in documentaries. In 1963, with co-writer Jack Davies, Annakin had been working on an adventure about transatlantic flights when bankruptcy aborted the production. Fresh from his role as director of the British exterior segments in The Longest Day (1962), Annakin suggested an event from early aviation to Darryl F. Zanuck, his producer on The Longest Day.

A brief narration outlines man’s first attempts to fly since the Stone Age inspired by a bird’s flight, seen with footage from the silent film era, and man being represented by “test pilot” (Red Skelton) encountering misfortune in his attempts.

In 1910, seven years after the first heavier-than-air flight, aircraft are fragile and unreliable contraptions, piloted by “intrepid birdmen.”

Pompous British newspaper magnate Lord Rawnsley (Morley) forbids his would-be aviatrix daughter, ardent suffragette Patricia (Sarah Miles), to fly. Aviator Richard Mays (James Fox), a young army officer and (at least in his own eyes) Patricia’s fiancé, conceives the idea of an air race from London to Paris to advance the cause of British aviation and his career.

With Patricia’s support, he persuades Lord Rawnsley to sponsor the race as a publicity stunt for his newspaper.

Rawnsley, who takes full credit for the idea, announces the event to the press, and invitations are sent to leading aviators all over the world. Dozens of participants arrive at the airfield at the “Brookley” Motor Racing Track, where the fliers make practice runs in the days prior to the race. During this time, a wildly mixed international assembly of aviators begins rubbing shoulders with each other, most of them conforming to national stereotypes: The by-the-book Prussian officer Colonel Manfred von Holstein (Gert Fröbe), who becomes the victim of Frenchman Pierre Dubois’ (Jean-Pierre Cassel) various pranks; the impetuous Italian Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi), who buys various aircraft from designer Harry Popperwell (Tony Hancock) and wrecks them in test flights; the unscrupulous British baronet Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas), aided by his bullied servant, Courtney (Eric Sykes); and the rugged American cowboy Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman) who falls for Patricia, forming a love triangle with her and Mays.

As the teams test their aircraft, Newton gets caught in the rigging of Sir Percy’s plane, which crashes in the nearby sewage farm. Newton later stops the German’s aircraft after its tail breaks off and runs out of control. This leads to Patricia falling for him even more and Mays to become more jealous. At a celebration in Brighton, Mays confronts Newton, sparking a fierce rivalry between them for Patricia’s hand, just before Japan’s official contestant, naval officer Yamamoto, arrives at the airfield.

As Yamamoto is officially greeted, Patricia convinces Newton to take her flying and they race back to the airfield, followed by Mays and her father, who are intent on stopping them. Not long after taking off, one of the struts on Newton’s plane breaks, and Patricia has to fly the plane while Newton repairs it with his belt. When Newton lands, Lord Rawnsley throws him out of the race. Patricia apologizes to Newton, and Rawnsley gives in after she threatens to start an international incident.

Meanwhile, Holstein, insulted by the French team’s mockery, challenges Dubois to a duel. Dubois agrees, and opts for gas balloons and blunderbusses as his weapons of choice. Both balloons and their pilots end up in the filthy waters of the adjacent sewage farm.

Sir Percy sabotages Yamamoto and Newton’s planes, and Rumpelstoss, the German pilot, is incapacitated by a laxative meant for Yamamoto. As the competitors take off the next day, with Holstein standing in for Rumpelstoss, Yamamoto’s aircraft crashes. Fuel blockages and other technical mishaps additionally hamper the fliers, until most of them safely arrive at Dover, their checkpoint before the final flight across the English Channel.

That night, Sir Percy cheats by having his aircraft taken across by boat, but is delayed by excited locals when he arrives. Most other contestants, including Holstein, crash-land in the Channel. Sir Percy gets his comeuppance when he becomes disoriented by the smoke from a locomotive between Calais and Paris, causing him to jam his landing gear between two of the train cars. As he runs along the top trying to get the driver’s attention, the train passes through a tunnel, wrecking his aircraft.

Coming into Paris, Ponticelli’s plane catches fire, and Newton slows down to rescue him as Mays is landing, winning for Britain. Mays recognises Newton’s heroism and shares the glory and the prize with him, while Ponticelli agrees to give up flying for his family. The only other successful aviator is Dubois, completing his race for France. Patricia finally chooses Newton, breaking the love triangle. Their kiss is interrupted by a strange noise: they and the others at the field look up to see a flyover by six English Electric Lightning jet fighters, as the time period leaps forward to the “present” (1965).

Outlined are the still-persisting hazards of modern flying despite today’s advanced technology, as a night-time civilian flight across the English Channel is cancelled owing to heavy fog. One of the delayed passengers (Skelton) gets the idea of learning to fly under his own power, perpetuating man’s pioneering spirit.

James Robertson Justice as the voice of the narrator

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines … concludes with an epilogue in a fogbound 1960s London airport when cancellation of flights to Paris is announced. The narrator remarks that today a jet makes the trip in seven minutes, but “it can take longer”. One frustrated passenger (Skelton, again) starts wing-flapping motions with his arms, and the scene morphs into the animation from the title sequence for the closing credits.

This was Skelton’s final appearance; he was in Europe filming the 1964–65 season of his TV series, The Red Skelton Show.

Zanuck suggested a recurring gag with Irina Demick playing a series of flirts who are pursued by the French pilot. She is Brigitte (French), then Ingrid (Swedish), Marlene (German), Françoise (Belgian), Yvette (Bulgarian), and finally Betty (British).

The film played in cinemas as the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union hit a new gear.

Oscar Records

At 85 characters, Those Magnificent Men…was the longest-titled film nominated for an Oscar until the 2021 nominations of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Those Magnificent Men In their Flying Machines…enjoyed three full-length 70 mm Todd-AO Fox releases in 1965, with an intermission and musical interlude.

Box-Office Hit

The film was initially exclusive roadshow presentation where customers needed reserved seats. It was an immediate box-office success, outgrossing the similar car-race comedy The Great Race (1965).

And it stood up well against the slightly earlier It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

The film needed to earn $15,300,000 in worldwide rentals to break even and made $29,950,000.

In the US, the film earned $14,000,000 in rentals, becoming 1965’s fourth highest-grossing film. By September 1970, it had earned estimated profit of $10,683,000.

Stuart Whitman as Orvil Newton
Sarah Miles as Patricia Rawnsley
James Fox as Richard Mays
Alberto Sordi as Count Emilio Ponticelli
Robert Morley as Lord Rawnsley
Gert Fröbe as Colonel Manfred von Holstein
Jean-Pierre Cassel as Pierre Dubois
Irina Demick as Brigitte-Ingrid-Marlene-Françoise-Yvette-Betty

Red Skelton as Neanderthal Man, Roman birdman, Middle Ages inventor, Victorian-era pilot, Rocket pack inventor, Modern passenger
Terry-Thomas as Sir Percy Ware-Armitage
Eric Sykes as Courtney
Benny Hill as Fire Chief Perkins
Yūjirō Ishihara as Yamamoto
Dame Flora Robson as Mother Superior
Karl Michael Vogler as Captain Rumpelstoss
Sam Wanamaker as George Gruber
Tony Hancock as Harry Popperwell
Eric Barker as French Postman
Maurice Denham as Trawler Skipper
Fred Emney as Colonel
Gordon Jackson as MacDougal
Davy Kaye as Jean, Chief mechanic for Pierre Dubois
John Le Mesurier as French Painter
Jeremy Lloyd as Lieutenant Parsons
Zena Marshall as Countess Sophia Ponticelli
Millicent Martin as Air Hostess
Eric Pohlmann as Italian Mayor
Marjorie Rhodes as Waitress
Norman Rossington as Assistant Fire Chief
Willie Rushton as Tremayne Gascoyne
Graham Stark as Fireman
Jimmy Thompson as Photographer
Michael Trubshawe as Niven, Lord Rawnsley’s aide
Cicely Courtneidge as Colonel’s Wife
Ronnie Stevens as Reporter
Ferdy Mayne as French Official
Vernon Dobtcheff as French Team Member