Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines [film]

The Germans are coming!
 Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines is a film that I love. The story is simple enough: a young Army officer persuades his fiancee's father, who owns a newspaper, to sponsor a cross-channel air race to encourage British aviation. The huge cash prize Lord Rawnsley puts up in his newspaper attracts entrants from around the world - not all of them good sports. Before the race even takes place there are sabotage attempts, rivalries... even a duel where the weapons are blunderbusses and hot air balloons! The race itself sees more sabotage, a cheaty way to cross the Channel, even a convent of nuns aiding the Italian airman in order to ensure the race is not won by a Protestant. It's all very silly, and good fun.

You must have heard the theme song, which is brilliantly illustrated by Ronald Searle (the artist behind the St Trinians and Molesworth drawings.) The comedy doesn't stop there: famous comedians with roles in the film include Tony Hancock, Eric Sykes and, erm, Benny Hill.

Not-flying machine...
The film says as much about the 1960s as it does about the 1910s, and it was made just two decades after the end of the second world war, so many of the foreign competitors are stereotypes: the Frenchman is a womaniser (hilariously, all his paramours are played by the same actress), the German stiff and rulebound, the American a rugged, charming cowboy. The English characters are also a variety of stereotypes too, from the suffragette fiancee (there's the 1960s feminist influence!) to the upright young Army officer.

The Brits are not all decent chaps, either: Terry-Thomas is my absolute favourite of the English characters. He plays a Baronet determined to win the race however he can. He is such a brilliant bounder. At one point he wears a ghastly hat in two shades of green, and matching bright green and yellow waistcoat. How could he be anything other than a rascal? And that's before he tries putting off the French competitor by sending a comely lass after him, and other dirty tricks. (If Terry-Thomas' character sounds a bit 'Dick Dastardly' to you, there is definitely something of the Wacky Races about this film.)

I think the reason some steampunks hold the film to their hearts is that it embraces the spirit of adventure in early aviation, where one person could indeed have an impact on technology, and where there was a joy in experimenting with it. The variety of reproduction aeroplanes used is a real delight. Those Magnificent Men... certainly is packed with optimism. I just enjoy seeing Terry-Thomas is full bounder flow.


  1. I have never seen the film but I remember singsongs of the theme tune with my grandad!


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