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May 25, 2007

The Star Wars Blog-a-thon: Two by Ken Annakin

ken annakin.jpg
Ken Annakin

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines
Ken Annakin - 1965
Twentieth Century Fox Region 1 DVD

Third Man on the Mountain
Ken Annakin - 1959
Disney Region 1 DVD

Before there was Anakin Skywalker, there was Ken Annakin. And before there was Star Wars, there was Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. There is general agreement that Anakin was named after Annakin. The only discussion of a specific Ken Annakin film I have found was of George Lucas reworking part of Swiss Family Robinson for use in Return of the Jedi. I am also assuming Lucas had grown up watching other films by Ken Annakin, such The Story of Robin Hood and Third Man on the Mountain, the kind of adventure films designed primarily for boys growing up in the Fifties. In Star Wars, Lucas had his characters fly through a vast, if known galaxy. Annakin's film of flight could be seen as a comic look at the adventure of people and aircraft.

TMMitFM is about a fictional air race from London to Paris that takes place in 1910. A group of pilots representing different countries and different character types compete for the big money prize. In Annakin's film, everyone speaks English, but there are scenes with the characters at odds with each other based on nationalism. Lucas takes the concepts of language and society further in his films. While the young people in American Graffiti all speak English, it is in an idiomatic form that is not shared with the largely unseen adults. Lucas looks at the different groups of teenagers, with their own dress codes and rules of membership. The cantina scene in Star Wars allows for Lucas to create a place where different aliens can meet, allowing for the audience to be aware of different languages and groupings of the various space beings. TMMitFM has a scene of all the pilots together in a restaurant the night before the race. Lucas' scene, as his whole film, also intergrates the concept of archtypes from Joseph Campbell. Ken Annakin was more likely working from a more intuitive framework, but within one tracking shot reminds the audience of how different his pilots are from each other.

What Lucas' film also shares with Annakin's film is the fascination with the mechanics of flying. The aircraft in TMMItFM are all reconstructions of actual aircraft that existed in 1910. A variety of airplanes of differing shapes and sizes in from the early Twentieth Century are contrasted with the different pilots. Similar to that are the different space craft and aliens in Star Wars, or the variety of cars and drivers in American Graffiti. Much as it was emphasised that the Millenium Falcon was an old and vulnerable spacecraft, Annakin presents airplanes that were rickety when they were new.

those magnificent men in their flying machines 1.jpg

The young woman played by Sarah Miles shares some similarities to Princess Leia. There may have been more in common had Lucas made his heroic character a woman as in earlier screenplays of Star Wars. Miles' feminism is announced with her entrance riding a motorcycle. In a shot of Miles putting the motorcyle away, one sees that the inner door of a shed has a suffragette poster, a written declaration for female equality. Through much of the film, Miles tries to find a way to fly, originally with fiance James Fox, and successfully with Stuart Whitman. As a pilot from Arizona, Whitman’s character could be viewed as the prototype for the "space cowboy", and a distant cousin to Han Solo. As the daughter of wealthy publisher Robert Morley, Miles portrays a sort of princess who tries to prove herself as capable as any man. And like in Star Wars, the princess finds herself happily in the arms of a rough outsider whose sense of the greater good outweighs his personal needs.

those magnificent men in their flying machines 2.jpg

Ken Annakin has declared that his primary purpose in making films was to entertain. His directorial career was long, spanning over forty years. Published in England, Annakin wrote a book about his filmmaking career titled So You Wanna be a Director?. The book's introductions are by Richard Attenborough AND Mike Leigh. As their are only a few of Annakin's films available to review on DVD or video, re-examining his career in full is more difficult. While the comparison is admittedly superficial, Annakin's films share Raoul Walsh's spirit of fun and adventure for its own sake. One moment that might be considered defining of Annakin is at the end of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines when the air race is over, and Sarah Miles and Stuart Whitman appear ready to walk off into the sunset. The quiet of the end of the day is interrupted by the sound of jet planes, and the film cuts first to an overhead of jets flying in formation, followed by a pilot's point of view shot. Annakin's audio anachronism brings the audience back to the present day, but also anticipates the kind of adventures in flying that would be manifested most successfully in Star Wars.

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Third Man on the Mountain, while less a personal film for Ken Annakin, has some narrative elements that are repeated in Star Wars. The protagonist is a young man with the goal of living up to the legacy of his father. James MacArthur, at the time Disney's serious teen actor, portrays the son of a legendary mountain guide. Working as a dish washer, his goal is to climb the mountain where his father lost his life. Janet Munro, the girl who believes in him, has a brief moment where she goes mountain climbing with MacArthur. Again, as with Sarah Miles in TMMitFM and Lucas' original Princess Leia, the female character is, to a limited extent, able to take on the same physical adventure as the men. Michael Rennie, as the world famous mountain climber and mentor to MacArthur prefigures Alec Guinness, with both not coincidentally being tall and British. Much like Star Wars, Third Man on the Mountain is about a young man who takes life-threatening risks to prove to others as well as himself that he is indeed a capable man and not a boy. Additionally, there is a scene somewhat similar to Star Wars' cantina, and TMMitFM' restaurant where an international group of climbers speak of national pride before deciding that being part of a brotherhood of mountain climbers is more important. In Annakin's films as in those of Lucas, language barriers are transcended by unity of purpose.

For other entries in the Star Wars blog-a-thon, Edward Copeland has the force.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 25, 2007 12:01 AM


I vaguely remember seeing Flying Machine when I was in grade school but all I really remember is the theme song.

Posted by: Edward Copeland at May 25, 2007 03:37 PM