Set around a fictional 1910 London to Paris air race and the rivalries of the pioneer aviators it attracts from all around the world to risk life, limb and some dodgy back-projection in the Paris sequences, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes began life as a project on pilots Alcock and Brown for Alexander Korda. Director Annakin had already reconstructed many of the vintage aircraft before the producer's death took the project with him.
As with The Longest Day, the story provided 20th Century Fox with a great opportunity to increase its foreign box-office prospects by populating the film with popular actors from around the world, while its episodic structure and the sheer size of the cast meant that many could film their parts in a matter of days, keeping the budget manageable. As a result, many are so brief that blink-and-you'll-miss-them (Red Skelton, Tony Hancock, Benny Hill).
If it is typical of the international co-productions that were to follow it, it is atypical in that it is also quite funny and highly entertaining. This despite studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck wanting to play down the comic aspects of the film, cutting many early scenes from the script and the rough-cut and building up the rather lukewarm romantic triangle with Stuart Whitman and James Fox fighting over Sarah Miles.
The colour in the casting is definitely on the sidelines. Gert Frobe is memorable as the pompous Prussian learning to fly "from ze book of instructions," as is the briefly seen Tony Hancock as a less than successful inventor whose real-life plaster cast on his broken foot was written into the script to provide one of the film's biggest laughs. But, despite the large ensemble, the undisputed star of the show is easily Terry Thomas at his most caddish as the archetypal cheat and rotter Sir Percy Ware Armitage, making a great double act with Eric Sykes as his put-upon chauffeur that was surely the inspiration for Dastardly and Muttley.
Ron Goodwin's catchy score and Ronald Serle's cartoons catch the mood perfectly, and the planes - built to original specifications - are quite wonderful to watch while the spoilsports among you will have fun looking out for the modern cars (such as the Land Rover clearly visible about an hour into the film) and the Sixties ferries in the Dover and Calais sequences.
Unfortunately, like many Fox Classics titles, the UK PAL DVD is extras-lite - the NTSC version has a much better collection, though Twilight Time's excellent region-free Blu-ray transfer is the one to go for. Where the DVD's generally very good transfer had a few shots that had a slight milkiness and one joke was lost as the sign on Jeremy Lloyd's co-pilot, 'I am the first dog to fly', was illegible, the limited edition Blu-ray had no such problems and is the best I've seen the film look outside of its 70mm Todd AO screenings. It also includes an audio commentary by director Ken Annakin, an isolated score track for Ron Goodwin's excellent score, 2 TV spots, teaser trailer and full theatrical trailer and booklet and is well worth tracking down.