I didn’t always love aeroplanes. I’m reliably informed that when I was a toddler, the Luftwaffe’s widowmakers used to terrify me; but that was a long time ago, and since I was at least five I’ve been fascinated by the stick-and-canvas halcyon days of flight. It’s not surprising, therefore, that my favourite family film is about the crazy, lethal, glorious days before wireless telegraphy, airline food and parachutes. My grandfather had an old ciné projector, and one of his reels was an abridged version that he used to screen for me, my brother and our two cousins. This film has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

In 1965, Twentieth Century Fox released one of the all-time classic aeroplane films, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. It follows the events of the 1910 Daily Post air race, an event sponsored by Robert Morley’s imperious and irascible Lord Rawnsley with the intention of bringing together the world’s aviators, to exchange ideas and prove that Britannia rules the skies as well as everything else. The ten-thousand pound prize brings together an eccentric cast from all over the world, and their various exploits and misadventures paint a beguiling picture of Edwardian society. The pompous and martial Oberst Manfred, Freiherr von Holstein and his long-suffering A.D.C., Hauptmann Rumpelstoss want to prove that “there is nothing a German officer cannot do” at the orders of the Kaiser; Count Emilio Ponticelli goes “like Caesar” to England, to “win, for Italia”; Lt. Col. Mays, Coldstream Guards, is there to fulfil Lord Rawnsley’s expectation that the race will be won by an Englishman, and incidentally arrange his engagement to the sponsor’s daughter; Yamamoto is also racing for his country’s honour, having travelled from Japan across the whole of Europe to compete, and Pierre Dubois mentions at one point that “the honour of France is at stake”, although his primary occupation is with a string of beautiful women, all played by Irina Demick. Only two competitors are openly doing it for the money: Orville Newton of Phoenix, Arizona, who’s completely broke and needs it to keep flying; and Sir Percy Ware-Armitage, who’s just – as Willie Rushton comments – “a most ghastly person”.

In terms of character interaction, the main focus is on the romantic triangle between Patricia Rawnsley (a divine Sarah Miles), Richard Mays (James Fox) and Orville Newton (Stuart Whitman). At the opening of the film Patricia and Richard have what was once called “an understanding” – not engaged, but very close to it; but as we see from his conversations with her approving father, she comes in a poor fourth place behind soldiering, flying, cards at White’s and snooker with the adjutant. When the simple, brave and ardent figure of Newton arrives on the scene it’s fairly obvious that Mays will soon be out of the picture, and this creates a brilliant comedic tension between the two and underlines their very different manners and perceived national characters.

In fact, national character is a large theme in this film. Each competitor in the race stands in for an entire nation, as seen through English eyes. The French irreverently mock the Germans throughout training, playing Frère Jaques on a gramophone and performing a clownish parody of the military flag-raising in the next hangar (what idiot would put the French and Germans next to each other a mere forty years after the Franco-Prussian war is beyond me); Dubois is a shameless flatterer and womaniser; von Holstein is a goose-stepping buffoon, but possessed of tenacity and courage; Ponticelli is an emotional Catholic with a huge family; Newton is relaxed, informal, reckless and ambitious; even the only Scot is a whisky drinker, who flies in tartan and refers to a drink as ‘a wee dram’. Only Yamamoto breaks with stereotype, and in his cut-glass accent announces “No thanks, old chap; I only drink whisky and water”. The English are the only characters who appear in all guises, from the dashing Mays to the caddish Sir Percy (Terry-Thomas) and his downtrodden and rebellious valet Courtney (Eric Sykes); from Benny Hill’s harassed fire chief to the retired Indian Army colonel, whose memsahib lends Mays an ostrich feather from her hat for a pipe-cleaner. But even these are archetypes: this film was made fifty-five years and two world wars after the events are set, and that intervening space informs a general spirit of nostalgia that suffuses the film (everyone knows that the English can’t resist nostalgia – it’s been a part of our character since Anglo-Saxon times). There is tension and competition between the nations, but it’s good-natured; all are united by the common goal of conquering the skies, although it’s significant given the film’s date that there is no Russian present. We are invited to compare this world with the one that replaced it after 1914, when all the Edwardians’ illusions about balances of power and the shared heritage of Europe came crashing down around them, and those pretty little confections of wood and canvas were fitted with machine guns.

Those fragile early essays in aeronautics are the real stars of the show. Each is a faithful replica of a real aeroplane of 1910, and some great names are represented: Santos-Dumont, Bristol, Sopwith, Antoinette, Blackburn and Vickers. Some of them, like Newton’s Bristol Boxkite and MacDougall’s Blackburn Monoplane, Wake Up, Scotland, are still flying today. Frequent in-machine shots highlight the vulnerability of a pilot making the cross-channel flight, while beautiful panoramic shots of the aircraft against the English and French countryside, the Channel and their native element emphasise their fragility and grace. The journey that takes a modern jet about twenty minutes from boarding to disembarkation is not without event for these machines. Through the sabotage of the scheming Sir Percy, Yamamoto crashes on take-off, Newton loses a landing wheel and Ponticelli force-lands near a convent, only regaining the skies after threatening the sisters that should he remain earth-bound, the race will be won by a Protestant. Crippled by a blocked fuel line, Mays makes an emergency landing on a stretch of road, narrowly missing an elderly military couple. As the Antoinette sweeps imperiously aloft, the old Colonel turns to his wife: “I think I’ll get one of those, Muriel”. “I shouldn’t, Willie,” she replies. “You’re near enough to your wings as it is.”

The English Channel also claims its victims: Oberst von Holstein, a slave to the Book of Instructions, ends up climbing out of his cockpit to retrieve it and falling ignominiously into the sea, pickelhaube still immovably affixed to his head; Lieutenant Parsons, RN, ends up launching his Picaut Dubrieul, “HMS Victory” and taking his dog, Nelson, for a swim. Although there is a steam launch on hand to rescue these men, the Channel was a huge obstacle, and many early pioneers ended up getting their feet wet. It can be easily forgotten just what a risk Louis Blériot was taking when he made his crossing in 1909, effectively trusting his life to twenty-five horsepower of unreliable Anzani; but this film reminds us that for those who made those first halting advances on the sky, the risk was always worth it. Dying of injuries sustained in a crash, the great Franco-Peruvian pioneer Jorge Chávez Dartnell summed it all up: “Arriba, siempre arriba” (“Higher, ever higher”). That is now the motto of the Peruvian air force.

All in all, then, this is a film that I can watch with my parents or my niece, but which doesn’t drive me insane, like musicals, or make me want to kill bunnies with hammers, like Disney. I had the aged progenitors over last night, and this is what we watched. They both saw it at the cinema back in 1965, long before they met: yet another link with family history.

If you haven’t seen this film yet, leave whatever hermitage you’ve been living in for the last forty-four years and watch it: it’s brilliant.