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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), a children’s film about a family that comes into possession of a magical flying car, was released on Blu-ray on January 21. This has inspired me to examine the history of flying cars in films.

Man has long dreamed of traveling in his very own personal flying conveyance. Epic poems produced in India during the late Antiquity described flying chariots, also known as “sun chariots.” Folk tales depicted men riding magic horses into the sky. Samuel Brunt’s 1727 novel A Voyage to Cacklogallinia depicted a character ascending to the moon in a palanquin held aloft by human-sized birds.

A Voyage to Cacklogallinia (1727)

Still, without question, the most popular personal flying device was the flying carpet. The flying carpet were part of adventurous fairy tales that once delighted the inhabitants of the Parthian Empire. This conveyance was originally depicted as a weapon of war. A folk story from 130 BC involves a Parthian king, Phraates II, who rides a cloth or carpet to the Seleucid Empire to battle rival king Antiochus VII. Phraates promptly destroys Antiochus by raining fire and lightning down upon him. He celebrates his victory by riding the carpet over cheering crowds. A similar story appeared in 260 AD. This time, Persia’s King Shapur I uses a magic carpet to surprise Roman emperor Valerian. Shapur pulls Valerian onto the carpet and flies him to a Persian camp. Flying carpets figured into many other war stories. A Thirteenth Century folk tale spotlighted a squad of Toranian archers carried aloft by flying carpets to lay siege to an enemy castle.

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In 2004, Pakistani author Azhar Abidi received acclaim for his mock scholarly essay The Secret History of the Flying Carpet, which alleged to feature quotes from recently unearthed ancient scrolls. He described a menacing warrior flying his carpet over an open-air marketplace. He wrote, “On a pleasant evening, when the suk was bustling with people, and the veiled ladies from Georgia had just disembarked from their litters and were being escorted to the silk merchant, a madman appeared from behind a dome and swooped down at them. The flier was a giant of a man with a magnificent black beard and long hair trailing in the wind behind him. He was wearing a loincloth, his eyes were a luminous green, an eagle was flying by his side, and he was laughing madly. The women saw this apparition heading towards them and froze with terror as he tore away his loincloth and started urinating in their upturned faces.” While soaring over Washington D.C. in his Flubbermobile, Fred MacMurray never tried to urinate on the National Science Foundation for denying him a research grant. But we’ll get back to him later.

The flying carpet became an international sensation when it was featured in the Middle Eastern folk tale “The Three Brothers,” which was included in the famous Arabian Nights book. The flying carpet is largely associated with another Arabian Nights tale, “Aladdin and The Magic Lamp,” but that story did not originally include a flying carpet. It did, however, include a flying bed. Aladdin is upset to learn that his beloved has married the son of the Grand Vizier. He commands his genie to “bring hither the bride and bridegroom.” The genie transports the newlyweds across the city atop their marital bed. That was somewhat risqué for a story that is now widely enjoyed by children.

Jules Verne was a flying car pioneer. In his 1870 novel All Around the Moon (1870), Verne described three men embarking on a journey to the moon in a flying car. He wrote, “The three travelers approached the mouth of the enormous cannon, seated themselves in the flying car, and once more took leave for the last time of the vast throng standing in silence around them. The windlass creaked, the car started, and the three daring men disappeared in the yawning gulf.”

Verne’s 1904 novel Master of the World features the Terror, an invention capable of many transformations. It could function as a boat, car or aircraft. This machine, which possessed wings that folded out from its sides, was able to “dart through space with a speed probably superior to that of the largest birds.” Verne, too, envisioned a flying car being solely produced for the purpose of war.

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Illustration of The Terror by Georges Roux

Filmmakers initially saw flying cars as something funny. The earliest film known to feature a flying car was a 1906 British comedy called The ‘?’ Motorist, in which a speed freak motorist escapes a police officer by driving up the side of a building and flying into outer space.

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The 1923 Mack Sennett comedy Skylarking featured a car that is lifted high into the sky by a hot air balloon.

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The inventor (Harry Gribbon) proudly stands alongside his hot air balloon car.

Of course, the intrepid stuntmen of early Hollywood did not need special effects to make a car take flight.

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An establishing shot of a futuristic city is not complete without flying cars. This matter is well addressed by the following quote from the TV Tropes website: “Perhaps the earliest example in film would be the small personal airplanes seen flitting amongst the buildings in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis [1927]. They may not have looked like cars, but they seemed to fill the same function. This was probably also the Trope Maker for the whole ‘throw in some flying cars zipping between giant buildings to establish that we’re in The Future’ thing, and it remains popular to this day.”

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The Ub Iwerks cartoon Happy Days (1936) features a car that levitates high into the sky when its owner puts too much air in its tires. The cartoon can be found on YouTube.

The flying car became a long overdue sensation with The Absent Minded Professor (1961). Professor Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray), the professor of the title, accidentally invents flying rubber, or “Flubber,” which he uses to make his Model T fly. This is a impressive juxtaposition of past technology and future technology. The film’s special effects supervisors, Robert A. Mattey and Eustace Lycett, were so masterful in their use of miniatures and screen matte effects that they were nominated for an Academy Award.

Title: ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR, THE ¥ Pers: MacMURRAY, FRED ¥ Year: 1960 ¥ Dir: STEVENSON, ROBERT ¥ Ref: !AB001AF ¥ Credit: [ WALT DISNEY / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

The Absent Minded Professor excited a flying car trend. Later that same year, moviegoers who bought an admission ticket to Invasion of Neptune Men (1961) saw a superhero known as Space Chief fly around in a rocket-propelled car to battle an invading army from outer space.  Soon, flying cars were abound on television.

The French film Fantômas se déchaîne (1965) climaxes with arch villain Fantomas escaping in a Citroën DS that uses retractable wings to convert into an airplane. This invention and others in the film were no doubt influenced by the popular gadgets featured in the James Bond films.

Fantômas se déchaîne 1965

Fantômas se déchaîne

The Citroën DS, which was known for its aerodynamic futuristic body design, lent itself well to this scene and is largely the reason that this flying car has remained an iconic movie prop for the last fifty years.

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The car was recently featured in a short comedy film in which Fantomas is shown in grease-stained red overalls struggling to repair his flying car.

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The flying car was a well-worn concept by the time that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came along. The car, which possessed the same abilities as The Terror vehicle, did not at first seem to offer the slightest novelty, but it was eventually revealed that the car was endowed with independent intelligence and was able to respond efficiently to threats with a variety of devices. That was, admittedly, a new twist.

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The car was designed by famous production designer Ken Adam, who is best known for his work on the early James Bond films and Dr. Strangelove (1964), and cartoonist and sculptor Frederick Rowland Emett. A clear effort was made to make this flying car more fanciful than MacMurray’s flying Model T. The designers took advantage of the fact that, while The Absent Minded Professor was a black-and-white film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was to be filmed in Technicolor. The car’s wheels and upholstery were made an eye-catching crimson red. Prominent were the car’s wavy-edged wings, across which were painted red and yellow stripes. Other trappings included flotation devices and propellers that were deployed as needed. Surprisingly, though, the car does not appear much in the film and the traveling matte effects are embarrassingly inferior to Mattey and Lycett’s effects in The Absent Minded Professor. This is a particular disappointment because the special effects were supervised by the well-respected John Stears, who had won an Academy Award for his work on Thunderball (1965) and later won his second Academy Award for his work on Star Wars (1977).

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John Burningham’s illustrations for Ian Fleming’s original novel depict a much plainer design for the car.

The flying car allowed another villain to escape capture in a James Bond spy adventure, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). This scene was as much about the future of marketing as it was about the future of travel. American Motors Corporation (AMC) furnished the production with 15 vehicles for the purpose of product placement. Inspired by an actual flying car prototype, special effects director Derek Meddings attached wings and a flight tail to a gold-colored AMC Matador coupe. Bond later learns that the flying car traveled 200 miles before landing, but the actual machine was only able to fly for 1,640 feet. John Stears had to build a remote-controlled scale model for the aerial scenes.

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The prototype that inspired this creation did not fare well. The inventor later crashed his flying car and died.

Star Wars (1977) and its sequels featured a variety of personal flying vehicles, including a flying car called an airspeeder.

The flying car was taken to the next level with the Spinners from Blade Runner (1982). The Spinner was agile. It could take off vertically, hover, and use jet propulsion to cruise through the sky. Syd Mead, an industrial designer who began his career at Ford Motor Company, came up with the design for the vehicle.

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The actual three-dimensional cars were built by automotive designer Gene Winfield. Winfield chose to build the Spinner on a Volkswagen chassis because the Volkswagen was designed with its engine in the rear and this allowed him to be extravagant in his arrangement of the vehicle’s front hood.

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Repo Man (1984) unveiled a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu that could fly.

Repo Man (1984)

In The Last Starfighter (1984), a teenage boy is befriended by an old man, who whisks him away from his home in a flying car. The “Star Car,” as this vehicle was called, was designed based on the DeLorean automobile.

Last-Starfighter

Elements of The Last Starfighter turned up the following year in Back to the Future (1985), in which an old man whisks a teenage boy away from his home in a flying car. The car in Back to the Future, which chiefly serves as a time machine, was also based on the DeLorean automobile. The car took its most remarkable innovation from the landing gear design of a plane. The car had the ability to drive normally on terrestrial byways, but it could fold its tires into its undercarriage once it took flight.

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Hidden out of view were the cranes and cables used to lift the car and create the illusion that it was flying.

Winfield, who designed and constructed the Star Car, was hired to build a flying DeLorean for Back to the Future Part II (1989). Winfield had worked for John DeLorean at one time and he admired the man for his design innovations. He made molds off a DeLorean, which he then used to construct a 700-pound fiberglass model.

Winfield brought in his past creations to dress the sets meant to represent the 2015 version of Hill Valley. These vehicles included the Star Car from The Last Starfighter, a Spinner from Blade Runner, 6000SUX from Robocop (1987), and Bubbletop from Sleeper (1973).

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Sitting in the driveway of a quiet suburban home was a Spinner that had been garishly repainted yellow and green.

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The Star Car makes a cameo appearance in the downtown area. The car can be clearly seen on the far left side of this screen capture.

A scene in which the car lands during a rain storm demonstrates a clear Blade Runner influence.

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Mel Brooks spoofed the flying car trend by introducing a flying Winnebago in Spaceballs (1987).

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Later that same year, the Doctor Who series presented a flying bus in the episode “Delta And The Bannermen.” This helped heavy load vehicles to take flight in legitimate science fiction films.

Doctor-Who-Bannermen Delta And The Bannermen (1987)

The Star Wars universe is currently filled with hovertrucks. The Fhloston Paradise, a 2,000-foot-long luxury cruise ship that sails above the Earth, was featured in The Fifth Element (1997).

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Still, a more memorable scene from The Fifth Element shows a squadron of flying cars tangled up in a police chase through a futuristic New York. The five-minute scene, which consisted of more than 70 shots, was a masterful blend of miniatures, CGI elements and digital matte paintings.

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Mark Stetson, visual effects supervisor, admitted that they replicated many elements of the Spinner cars from Blade Runner, but an effort was made to give the film a very different look than the earlier film. Stetson said, “The flying cars are a lot more whimsical, and the city is set in broad daylight. The film is rooted in a much more utopian vision of the future than Blade Runner, which virtually defined the post-apocalyptic look of futuristic films for more than a decade.” Effects cinematographer Bill Neil admitted that he was shocked when the director, Luc Besson, insisted that the sequence occur in broad daylight. Neil said, “Miniatures are often saved by the fact that you don’t see much of them, but this whole sequence took place late in the day, and it had to hold up to scrutiny.”

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This flying food truck reflected the filmmaker’s whimsical vision for The Fifth Element.

Children were never more thrilled when a flying car showed up in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

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The producers of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) partnered with the Chrysler Group for the big-screen debut of the comic book heroes’ flying car, The Fantasticar. The car was designed with a great deal of input from the Chrysler Group’s chief stylist, Trevor Creed. The vehicle was a big step up from The Terror, which could “dart through space with a speed probably superior to that of the largest birds.” It could travel at 550 miles per hour, ascend to 30,000 feet, soar across the globe on autopilot, and split into three independent sections. The car, which was built on top of a Dodge Charger, featured the Dodge logo on front and back.

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In 2009, Russian film company Bazelevs Productions had tremendous success with Black Lightning, a superhero film about a college student who fights crime with a flying car. Universal is currently developing an English-language remake.

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Government contractor Stark Industries displays a flying car prototype in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

Captain America The First Avenger

Chrysler returned to the flying car business after pouring a large amount of marketing dollars into Total Recall (2012). Patrick Tatopoulos, the film’s production designer, said that he had to consult with Chrysler every day on design matters. He admitted that they sometimes had an issue with their design choices and they needed to make changes to “make them happy.”

Total Recall (2012)

The film’s hover cars were mounted on a rig, which included a go cart attached to the bottom. The rigs carried the cars at high speeds beneath the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto and throughout an unused Canadian air base at Borden. Visual effects supervisor Adrian de Wet said, “We let rip with the cars. . . We drove the cars around at 40-50 miles an hour, allowing them to smash into each other. We wrote off a few cars, smashed a few cameras – all that kind of stuff.” Of course, the rigs were digitally removed in post-production.

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Total Recall  (1)

The flying cars keep coming with no end in sight.

flying cars - Russell T Davies’s 2012 show Wizards vs Aliens

Wizards vs. Aliens (2012)

You can no longer watch a movie about the future without seeing flying cars. But this isn’t presented as a cliché. Filmmakers see the mass-produced flying car as an inevitability and believe that leaving it out of a futuristic cityscape would be like leaving an refrigerator out of a scene set in a modern kitchen.

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This is a functioning flying car named the I-TEC Maverick.

I have less faith on the subject. So, for now, I will continue to consider the agile, swooping flying car as something that I can enjoy only by watching a good fantasy film.

You can read about flying cars on television by visiting my blog at http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/.

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One Response to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Other Flying Cars of Cinema

  1. Brian Siano says:

    I recall a silent comedy short in which a man invents a “folding Flivver” which also flies. I wish I could recall the title, or even the star: for some reason I thought it was El Brendel, but it wasn’t. Only things I remember are a scene where the inventor unfolds the car, the car flying past a steeple, and the inventor’s terrified black handyman clutching on for dear life. But, if you find it, it’d be welcome on your list.

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