Based on a screenplay titled Flying Crazy, the fictional account is set in 1910, when Lord Rawnsley, an English press magnate, offers £10,000 to the winner of the Daily Post air race from London to Paris, to prove that Britain is "number one in the air".
In 1910, just a few years after the first heavier-than-air flight, aircraft are fragile and unreliable contraptions, piloted by "intrepid birdmen". Ardent suffragette Patricia Rawnsley (Sarah Miles), the daughter of Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), a newspaper magnate, strives to become an aviatrix. Aviator Richard Mays (James Fox), a young Army officer, and (at least in his own eyes) Patricia's fiance, conceives the idea of an air race from London to Paris, to advance the cause of aviation (and his career), and persuades Lord Rawnsley to sponsor the race.
Rawnsley complains: "The trouble with these international affairs is they attract a lot of foreigners." Most of the contestants live up to national stereotypes, including the by-the-book, monocle-wearing Prussian officer (Gert Fröbe), impetuous Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi) whose test flights wreck one aircraft after another and amorous Frenchman Pierre Dubois (Jean-Pierre Cassel). In a recurring gag (suggested by Zanuck), Irina Demick plays a series of flirts: first, Brigitte (French), Marlene (German), Ingrid (Swedish), Françoise (Belgian), Yvette (Bulgarian), and Betty (British), pursued by the French pilot. Yujiro Ishihara is the late-arriving Japanese naval officer Yamamoto, whose perfect Etonian accent makes him sound more British than the British.
Echoing the rivalries between their respective nations, the contestants are pitted in an aerial competition that deteriorates into a ridiculous balloon duel between the German and French teams, and the nefarious actions of baronet Sir Percy Ware-Armitage (Terry-Thomas), an unscrupulous rogue who "never leaves anything to chance." With his bullied servant Courtney (Eric Sykes), he sabotages other aircraft or drugs their pilots, and cheats by shipping his aeroplane across the channel by boat. More complications occur when the rugged American cowboy Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman) falls for Patricia, forming a love triangle with her and Mays.
Fourteen competitors set out, but, one by one, they drop out or (like Ware-Armitage) crash, until only a few land in Paris. Newton loses his chance to win when he pauses to rescue Ponticelli from his burning aircraft. Mays wins for Britain, but insists on a tie with Newton and shares the prize with the now-penniless American. Orvil's and Patricia's final kiss is interrupted by a strange noise. Those at the flying field look up to see a flypast by six English Electric Lightning jet fighters overhead as the time period reverts to the "present" (1965). Read more . . .
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