Friday, November 12, 2010

EorE? Cinema: Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965)

The most famous comically-rambling movie title of the mid-60s was probably Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but if you've seen that one already, then here's a really great/dumb movie with a similarly unwieldy title that you probably haven't seen--and should.

"Stereotype" is a word steeped in negative connotations, and usually rightly so, but an odd thing about stereotypes is that we sometimes perpetuate them in celebration of what we most admire about another culture. Consider the plain-talkin' American cowboy, the ever-wooing Frenchman, the detail-oriented German. Rather than being negative, each of these clichéd characteristics can also be viewed in an appealing light. We like romantic Parisians, the precision of German automotive engineering, and the blindly optimistic never-give-up American spirit. Stereotypes unfairly paint the disparate members of any society as the same, but cultural differences are also a reality, and those observable differences make the world a more interesting place.

Perhaps "satire" could be defined as the wielding of stereotypes to illustrate a greater truth. It's a highly delicate operation that the filmmakers behind TMMITFM understood (as did Stanley Kubrick). While TMMITFM perpetuates nationalistic clichés (including those of the British filmmakers' own countrymen), it does so affectionately. Besides, that's the whole point, for once one steps back from the cartoon character details one finds that those broad brush-strokes form a wonderful satirical portrait of pre-World War Europe.

The film is set in 1910, a time when "Britannia may rule the waves, but it does not yet rule the air." So a British newspaper magnate sponsors an international air race across the English Channel. Of course, the Brits are not above a little cheating in order to tip things in Britannia's favor; after all, Britain wishes to impress the rest of the world with a win, and it is determined to secure victory at any cost.

Pilots arrive from various countries in order to compete (most of these countries are European ones; a modern remake would likely cast a wider international net). Each pilot is an embodiment of the stereotypes associated with his country of origin. Having a cast of British actors play each of these international representatives would likely have resulted in an unwatchable and nasty movie, but here is where the film delivers its master stroke: all the leads are actually from the countries of the characters they portray in the film.

The much-respected French actor Vincent Cassell's dad is in it; Jean-Pierre Cassell plays an affable and (of course) perpetually love-struck Frenchman. Italian actor Alberto Sordi plays a pilot who discovers the perfect time and place to captitalize on anti-Protestant leanings. German-born actor Gert Fröbe, coming off of playing the title character in Goldfinger, proves an excellent comic actor as he sends up German stereotypes (he wears a Pickelhaube throughout). And in the film's cutest twist, Japanese-born Yûjirô Ishihara plays a pilot who baffles his hosts because he speaks perfect King's English (when you remember how the Caucasian Mickey Rooney cringingly played a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany's four years earlier you really appreciate the higher-order comedy on display, here).

Benny Hill is in it, but don't let that be a deterrant; while his eponymous show and this film may share a few "screwball" qualities (including one sped-up-film chase scene), the comedy in TMMITFM soars in loftier realms. In addition to Hill, an odd foreshadowing of the future of British comedy can be experienced when one notices a familiar melody played by the band on the day of the big race: ah yes, that's the Sousa march that would later be used as the theme music for "Monty Python's Flying Circus."

After an enjoyable first hour getting to know the likable--and likably unlikable--characters, things shift to the big race. The comic tone remains consistent during this section, but with the change of focus also comes a new sense of wonder and adventure. The cast is wonderful, but the faithfully-reconstructed vintage airplanes are stars on an equal par--so historically accurate that one of them hangs in a museum today.

After 1910, Europe went to pieces, a serious point to reflect on while enjoying this comedy. But the film is really a celebration dance for the much-relieved and happier post-World War Western Europe of the 50s and 60s. An infectious joie de vivre permeates this endearingly silly movie, and so it is guaranteed to make you very happy.

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