Monday, 19 May 2008

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)

Or: How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes, to give its full title - part of the 60s vogue in British cinema for eccentric, long-winded film titles that emphasised the playfulness of the whole enterprise. Those Magnificent Men... (which I will abbreviate thus for simplicity's sake) is a comedy first and foremost, but it's also a good adventure yarn with a romantic triangle sub-plot, and some breathtaking scenery when the vintage planes are in the air. It's also for me, one of those fun family films that I used to enjoy watching on television when I was younger, with a host of familiar faces, and a great, jolly score by Ron Goodwin.

It captures the excitement of air travel (the Space Age of its time) combined with the humour of those daring would-be aviators all over the world who tried and usually failed to reach the skies.

The film opens in this vogue, with the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare played as if by a small tinny band in an old Edwardian theatre, and the first face we see is that of "Neanderthal Man" Red Skelton, looking up at a seagull flying in the sky, and thinking of emulating the feat. But flying, as narrator James Robertson Justice points out, "was strictly for the birds." Falling flat on his face, this does not prevent the amusing Mr Skelton from trying the feat many other times in the generations to come, leading up to 1910, the period setting of the story. Playing around with history, several actual attempts at flying machines are topped by one such creation of Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi), who makes "what many people claim was the first long distance flight" - of about 100 yards, before coming down to land with a bump - as he will a few more times in this movie.

Mr Justice declares that "Man had conquered the air, and people everywhere were all agog about, those magnificent men in their flying machines", which segues in Ronald Searle's amusing title sequence (animated by Ralph Ayres). The film gets underway at last when Lt. Richard Mays (James Fox) of the Coldstream Guards - a future Biggles in the making - touches his plane down. His fiancee, the rebellious but delectable Patricia Rawnsley (Sarah Miles), is desperate for Richard to take her up into the skies. If their on-screen chemistry seems rather good, that could be due to the fact that off-screen James Fox and Sarah Miles were lovers at the time, and here co-starring together in a much more light-hearted film that their previous teaming, The Servant with Dirk Bogarde.

Patricia's stuffy father however, Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), forbids such ideas of his daughter flying, but is much more enthusiastic to Richard's idea of organising an air race between London and Paris, intending to show "that Britain not only rules the waves, but intends in future, to rule the skies!"

His bewildered liaison officer Gascoyne (Willie Rushton) is given the task of informing the rest of the world's aviators about the race, and the glittering £10,000 prize (in various other currencies), and a pretty rogue bunch they are too: the womanising Pierre Dubois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) who can't take his eyes off Irina Demich - as "Brigitte", "Ingrid", "Marlene", "Francois", "Yvette" and "Betty"(!) If the French seem eccentric, this is nothing compared to the batty, buffoonish Germans, led by Gert Frobe, who believe everything is possible with a book of instructions to slavishly follow.

Late into the international affair, as ever, come the Americans, as represented by Stuart Whitman as Orvil Newton, and his associate George (Sam Wanamaker), who just doesn't share Orvil's passion for flying: it isn't the going up that discourages him, but the different ways Orvil keeps finding of coming down!

The aforementioned Emilio Ponticelli is having similar problems landing, and vows to his children and long-suffering wife Sophia (Zena Marshall - a stunning take-off of Sophia Loren), that he will retire from flying - until he sees the irresistible offer of the big prize air race, and "like-a Caesar, we go to England!"Lastly, we have the Japanese pilot Yamamoto (Yujiro Ishihara), who responds to the task given him by his lord and master, with the astonished statement, in a beautifully polished English accent (dubbed by James Villiers): "ten thousand pounds!"

However, last and by no means intending to be least, comes the rascally Sir Percy Ware-Armitage(!), played gloriously by Terry-Thomas, and the undoubted inspiration of the cartoon character Dick Dastardly. "That bounder" Sir Percy is not only going to join the race but is going to win it, by whatever underhand means he can, with the unwilling help of his seedy, henpecked valet Courtney (Eric Sykes). Their scenes together are the best of the film - the ground-based ones - but there are many other amusing set pieces too, not least the Keystone Cops-style firemen, led by Benny Hill - one of a number of famous 60's TV stars who pop up in cameo roles. Others include Millicent Martin, John Le Mesurier, the aforementioned Willie Rushton, and the king of all the sitcoms at the time, Tony Hancock.

The scene where the firemen are being chased all round the airfield by the poor German pilot (Karl Michael Vogler) who can't get his plane to stop, always had me in stitches, especially when his own German troopers have to scurry away when the plane comes towards them. In to save the day however, comes the buccaneering Orvil Newton, who has quickly won over the lovely Patricia - who sees a chance in being taken up into the skies that her fiancee denied her. The love triangle that develops therefore, between Orvil, Patricia and Richard, reminded me in some ways of the similar Han Solo/Princess Leia/Luke Skywalker love triangle in Star Wars.

Orvil gets into hot water as a result, after a narrow escape when he succumbs to Patricia's pleadings and takes her up for a joyride. The stuffy Lord Rawnsley is enraged at first, but Patricia persuades him otherwise, and off Orvil goes with all the others, on the perilous quest to fly from London across the Channel to Paris.

Before that however, those two old rivals France and Germany want to settle a few scores. The Germans demand satisfaction for being made to look like fools (as if they weren't already!), but the impish French suggest "balloons and blunderbusses" as the choice of weapons! The resulting airborne duel ends with both of them landing in the sewage, as well as poor old Emilio again. The treatment of the various nationalities in the film is of course, amusingly stereotypical - particularly of the Germans - in an old-fashioned, It's a Knockout kind of way, but it has to be taken within the context of the film as a bit of fun, for all its xenophobia.

The race begins at last, with the shock early exit of the Japanese - thanks to the handiwork of that naughty butler Courtney, and the rascally Sir Percy, who also removes one of Orvil's wheels, but the "Yankee chap" still manages to land at Dover (the first set-off point) OK, and patches the damage up overnight in time for the next stage of the race, across the Channel.

The fiendish Sir Percy however, is at it again, ahead of everyone else by crossing the Channel at night - not by plane, but [boo, hiss!] by boat, smuggling his flying machine across the seas. His inevitable comeuppance however, comes along courtesy of the good old steam train - which looks peculiarly English for a French railway line, and there's also a beautiful continuity gaffe, when a 1960s cooling tower is clearly visible in back projection behind Terry-Thomas! In spite of all his skulduggery, you can't help feeling sorry for Sir Percy when he looks back and sees his flying machine torn to shreds travelling through a tunnel, and he amusingly cries "Blast!!!"

At the climax of the race in Paris, a tense moment suddenly occurs as Emilio, in the lead up till now, once again has the misfortune to have his motor explode, and it's down to the dashing Orvil Newton once again to save the day, at the cost of winning the race, which is won by Richard Mays - in 25 hours 11 minutes. All ends well however, as the two agree to share the prize money - but will they share Patricia as well?

On that intriguing note, the story ends and the film flashes forward 50 years later, to the sight of supersonic jets covering the same distance in 7 minutes. However, back at Heathrow airport, fog has held up all flights to Paris, and one annoyed passenger - hey, it's Red Skelton! - flaps his arms in anger, as if he's flying. But, hang on a minute, perhaps he's onto something here....and so the film ends as it began.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Those Magnificent Men... was one of those fun films that was always a family favourite on TV. Officially it's a comedy, but a breathtaking one, allowing for some moments of serious drama, and of course the wonderful spectacle of all those vintage planes, which set it apart from other comedies of its kind - including a sequel, of sorts, THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN IN THEIR JAUNTY JALOPIES (aka. MONTE CARLO OR BUST).

I've yet to see Those Magnificent Men in the cinema, but I'm sure it's just as much fun as on TV, and more, especially in glorious Todd-AO widescreen which makes the airborne sequences all the more breathtaking, set to the tune of that catchy score. Altogether now:

"Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines,
They go up-tiddly-up-up, they go down-tiddly-oun-down.
They enchant all the ladies and steal all the scenes,
with their up-tiddly-up-up, and their down-tiddly-oun-down.
Up, down, flying around,
looping the loop and defying the ground,
they're, all, frighteningly keen,
those magnificent men, those magnificent men,
those Magnificent Men in Their Fly-ing Machines!"

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

First, a confession - which may come as a shock to the faithful, but I'll dodge the poisoned darts, evade the deadly spears, scurry away from the giant boulder, and press on just the same - I'm not a tremendous devotee of Indiana Jones. Back in 1981, my interests had largely turned away from cinema and towards sport (see The Empire Strikes Back blog), so the release of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK that year largely passed me by. When I saw the film on video some years later, I found it to be reasonably entertaining and action-packed, but also with some shocking holes in the plot and a very nasty climax.

Historically it's also a little dubious, based on the real-life efforts by Hitler's scientists - not to rule the Earth - but to find evidence of divine Aryan ancestry from the earliest dawn of time. But what the heck, it was a cheeky enough way to have a daredevil American archaeologist fighting the Nazis, five years before the Yanks properly got round to it in World War II.

Comparisons with the Star Wars saga were perhaps inevitable - as many of the same crew were also involved with Raiders - but where Star Wars is a plot driven spectacle in a galaxy far, far away, Indiana Jones is largely, I feel, an action-driven series, where the story usually serves as the means of putting the hero (and the audience) through various breathtaking adventures.

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM came along three years later, and this was even more unpleasant than Raiders, with delicacies including monkey brains for dessert, and a screaming dumb blonde heroine (who later became Mrs. Steven Spielberg).

However, come 1989, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas realised they had overdone things a bit with Temple of Doom, and decided to come back on track with the old formula of Indy fighting Nazis. Having searched for no less than the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders, this time the only thing left higher to search for was - what else? - the Holy Grail. And this time, as the publicity said, the man in the hat was bringing his Dad.

And here was Spielberg's masterstroke. As the series had been conceived by George Lucas as an American answer to James Bond, Spielberg's feeling was that the natural cinematic father of 45-year old Harrison Ford, should be the 58-year old Sean Connery.

Not many people would have thought of it straight away, but Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a delight from the moment these two first appear on screen together. Connery's enthusiastic, wholehearted and slightly self-mocking performance enlivens the proceedings immeasurably, and also gives his co-star some meaty acting competition, bringing out the Harrison Ford that I remembered from the Star Wars films. The two of them were also a commendable father and son duo, who managed to defy the narrow age difference between them with great aplomb.

What precedes their pairing, is admittedly almost a carbon copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (with even the opening school lecture scene re-staged), with the exception of an exhilarating prologue featuring River Phoenix as the young Indy, on his first scouting adventure. Phoenix was a suggestion of Harrison Ford's, having played his son in The Mosquito Coast with uncanny similarity. His tragic early death of a drug overdose deprived the world of a young star whose afterglow has since been of great help for the likes of Brad Pitt and Leonardo di Caprio. It also led on to a spin-off Young Indiana Jones TV series with Sean Patrick Flannery.

But I digress. Back to The Last Crusade, which begins in earnest when the seemingly benevolent New York millionaire Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) invites Dr. Jones to his swanky apartment to examine an ancient tombstone giving the (partial) details of the location of the supposed resting place of the Holy Grail itself. You just know however that Donovan will turn out to be a rat, because he's being played by an English actor in an American film.

Indy tells Donovan that he's picked the wrong Jones for the task, as the Grail is more the domain of his father, Henry Jones. The trouble is, Donovan has already hired Jones Senior, who has since gone missing, at the hands of - whaddya know - the Nazis. Indy therefore follows the trail which leads to Venice, then onto Germany, and ultimately the Holy Land itself.

Not only is Indy bringing his Dad, but also his old friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) into the film, confined to just an "M"-type figure at the beginning and end of Raiders, but here fully integrated into the action, and with the amusing extra touch of being like a fish out of water once out of his natural museum environment. Brody arrives in the Holy Land, knowing (according to Indy) "a dozen different languages. He'll blend in, disappear, you'll never see him again. With any luck, he's got the Grail already."

Cut to Brody walking through the street market, wondering if anyone speaks English! Luckily another old friend, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) is on hand to help.

Once in Venice, Jones is introduced to his father's assistant, Dr. Schneider, who is, hey presto, a beautiful blonde played by Alison Doody. After a close run-in with Turkish guardians of the Grail in the sewers of Venice, Jones Junior is eventually re-united with Jones Senior, who promptly breaks a rare Ming Dynasty vase over his son's head - assuming him to be a Nazi. But there's no harm done - the vase was a fake! And we're off and running.

The obligatory female interest turns out to be a femme fatale Nazi (well, she was Austrian after all), for this is really a father and son's adventure, and Connery gleefully enjoys sitting in the side-car of his son's motorbike, stealing glances - and scenes - quietly dismissing every moment of derring-do that Indy perpetrates. Ford to his credit, relishes the opportunity to react to such put-downs, and the two make a great pair.

One touching little moment later on in the film, which exemplifies not only their relationship, but many father and son relationships in general, is when Indy is fighting on board a German tank that is just about to fall over the edge of a cliff, and seems to go down with it. Henry and the others stop for a moment in mournful reflection, until they realise Indy is standing among them looking down at the wreck. Henry joyfully embraces his son as they display a moment of emotional bonding, then just as quickly Henry lets go of Indy and encourages him to keep moving, " why are you resting when we're so near the end!"

The ending itself, with an ageing Medieval knight who is the last custodian of the Grail (straight out of the English theatre seemingly) is a little ponderous, although the shock of seeing Henry shot cold-bloodedly in the chest by the scheming Donovan is a startling moment. Donovan inevitably gets his come-uppance (in the film's one moment of genuine nastiness) after the misguided Dr Schneider has selected the wrong cup of eternal life (which gives the opposite effect) for him. The last remnant of Donovan's shrivelled body is his swastika badge. Once a Nazi, always a Nazi it seems. Well, you can just shoot Sean Connery in the chest like that and get away with it, can you?

Elsa Schneider fares little better, hungry for the Grail in spite of the fact that it cannot be taken beyond its resting place, and she tumbles (to her death?) down a mountainous chasm. Indy has similar desires for the Grail soon afterwards, but after a little paternal wisdom from Henry, he decides to let it go.

At the end, the remaining four intrepid heroes ride off from the temple entrance (in reality the ancient city of Petra) away into the sunset. It seemed a suitable conclusion to a series that had neatly come to a full stop at the end of this fun third episode. After all, once both Henry Jones Senior and Henry Jones Junior (for that is Indy's real name!) have tasted the Cup of Life, what else is there left to conquer, now that they're both immortal?

The recent INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL however, has given the series fresh impetus, with an all-star supporting cast including Cate Blanchett, John Hurt, Ray Winstone, and the welcome return of Karen Allen (from Raiders) - but crucially missing the comedic touchstone that was Sean Connery.

I first saw Last Crusade in the cinema that summer of 1989, during those wistful days when Lucasfilm fans were waiting (seemingly endlessly) for the next Star Wars film. In the absence of Episodes 1, 2 and 3 however, we had to make do with this climactic [we thought] conclusion to the adventures of Indiana Jones, and a pretty rousing one it was too. It was also, rather poignantly, the last blockbuster to be shot exclusively at Elstree Studios.

I've since seen the film several times - more than any other in the Indy series - and it's still just as much fun to watch as it was the first time, whenever Ford and Connery are on screen together.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films