The other night I was channel surfing and stumbled across a Chinese-made World War II film from 2018. “Air Strike” was a Sino-Japanese War thriller about daring Chinese aviators battling the aerial hordes of Japanese bombers that laid waste to China’s cities for a couple of years before The Flying Tigers and Pearl Harbor brought allies to China’s aid, and changed the focus of combat to the South Pacific (mostly).
It’s a terrible movie, ahistorical and unexciting, with token high-priced American talent such as Bruce Willis and Oscar winner Adrien Brody (The “New” Nicolas Cage?) in supporting roles.
The worst thing about “Air Strike” is the CGI air to air combat, animated air raids and dog fights. We first started to see this “make an aviation movie cheaper” with Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” with the cut-rate WWI Lafayette Escadrille romance “Flyboys,” and the George Lucas-produced “Red Tails.”
After “Midway,” I got the feeling that the digital animation was getting better, more convincing. Not in “Air Strike.” “Cheesy” doesn’t do cheese justice.
But such abortive efforts inevitably increase my respect for the films that used real period aircraft, or slightly-safer modernized (better engines) replicas and real stunt pilots. These reached a kind of zenith in the ’60s, when fast photo-helicopters and sophisticated filmmaking made the aviation part of war films such as “The Blue Max” and “Aces High” (WWI) and “The Battle of Britain” vivid and convincing.
The most impressive of all, in that regard, has to be the 1965 “all star cast” comedy “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.” It might have been the “best picture” pic of the New York Film Critics Circle back then (Judas Priest!), and considered one of the “500 best screen comedies” by some entity or another, but the “comedy” part of it seems to have faded with the intervening decades.
It’s not very funny.
But the aircraft — a couple of vintage ones, and a lot of recreated versions of aircraft actually flying in 1910 — grow more impressive by the year.
Here is a version (top left) of the Alberto Santos Dumont “Demoiselle,” the most famous monoplane of the era, here flown by the French entrant (Jean-Pierre Cassel) in the movie’s London to Paris air race.
There is the Roe IV British triplane, the vehicle the villain (Terry-Thomas, blast him, lower left) flies. There’s a Wright Flyer (Stuart Whitman‘s Arizona barn-stormer flies this) and a Bristol Boxkite and Blackburn “Type D” (Gordon Jackson‘s Scots pilot’s “kite”), and a Philips Multiplane, Passat Ornithopter, Lee-Richards Annular Biplane, Vickers 22 Monoplane, an Avro, a Dixon Nipper, and an Eardley Billing Tractor biplane (upside down with the Very German Gert Fröbe (his stunt double) dangling from it.
They spent the money to rent a couple of survivor planes and built 18 replicas, repowered with Rolls Royce engines (most of them) and actually had pilots fly the darned things. Some of those planes, authentic and replicas, still fly today.
And even though there are process shots and tricks to put stars at the stick, or crowd the screen with planes (in a couple of cases), it’s still amazing to see almost 60 years after “Those Magnificent Men” were filmed.
The plot — a jingoistic British newspaper publisher (Robert Morley) stages a race from London to Paris (with one stopover) as a stunt and a means of gathering global aviators and all the different types of aeroplanes then in the air — is perfunctory.
The characters are stock “foreign” types — the Italian (Alberto Sordi) whose wife looks like Sophia Loren (and dresses like her) and their large Italian brood, the lascivious Frenchman (Cassel, later of “The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie”) who flirts with a succession of identical women from different countries, the (dubbed) Japanese pilot (Yûjirô Ishihara) who is more English than the English, the harrumphing German (Fröbe, aka “Auric Goldfinger”), the broke American “cowboy” (Whitman) and the prim, proper English officer, played by James Fox almost 20 years before he took “Passage to India.”
Some of the slapstick still works, most of it playing around the airfield’s “sewage pond” crash zone and with those stock European “types.” But there’s little amusing in the airplane crazy publisher’s daughter (Sarah Miles) pursued by the American and her British fiance or in Benny Hill’s aerodrome firefighter.
That gap-toothed bounder Terry-Thomas remains a walking, bug-eyed sight gag all these decades later. But he has to be. There’s little funny for him to do. Just another posh toff picking on the hired help, one among many in his long career.
I gave up looking for what amused me as a kid and found myself marveling over how this sort of propeller or that style of airframe ever got off the ground. But they did, and this relic of a comedy provides magnificent proof of that, and the nerve it took to try and fly them, then or now.
It’s worth seeing today as a means of shaming any filmmaker who doesn’t ride her or his CGI animators harder to get more convincing footage, flying scenes that look like the real thing, as seen in “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.”
Cast: Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, Gert Fröbe, James Fox, Alberto Sordi, Karl Michael Vogler, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sam Wanamaker, Benny Hill, Yûjirô Ishihara, Robert Morley and Terry-Thomas.
Credits: Directed by Ken Annakin, script by Jack Davies and Ken Annakin. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time: 2:18