#570) To Fly! (1976)

#570) To Fly! (1976)

OR “These Are a Few of My Favorite Wings”

Directed by Jim Freeman & Greg MacGillivray

Written by Freeman & MacGillivray & Francis Thompson & Robert M. Young & Arthur Zegart. Narration written by Tom McGrath

Class of 1995

There are two ways to watch “To Fly!”: at the Smithsonian Institution on a big screen, or on the Hagley Digital Archive website as a VHS rip. I chose the latter, but would one day love to experience the former.

The Plot: When visiting the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., be sure to stop by the theater and watch their original IMAX movie “To Fly!”. “To Fly!” chronicles the history of flight in America, from the first manned balloon flights, to the breakthrough of the Wright Brothers, all the way to the (then) modern Space Age. And because it’s IMAX, this movie is mostly beautiful helicopter shots of sweeping vistas and iconic panoramas.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites “To Fly!” as the film that “pioneered the ultra-wide IMAX format” and calls it “among the most popular diocumentaries [sic] ever produced”.

But Does It Really?: This is another one of those “but of course” movies for me. When discussing essential film, we typically think of essential movies, and not the physical film stock itself, but no film history would be complete without IMAX. With its big screen and stunning imagery, an IMAX movie is as much about the experience as it is about the film. “To Fly!” is a fun, visually engaging movie, and a natural choice to represent IMAX on the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Best friends Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman started their filmmaking careers with some 16mm shorts in the early ’60s, mostly about surfing. The unexpected success of their documentary “Free and Easy” (another surf movie) inspired the two to drop out of college and pursue filmmaking full-time. In 1974, the two were approached by IMAX to film “To Fly!” to coincide with the opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

Wow, That’s Dated: Only a few giveaways, such as the narration “As the century moves to its close…”, and a shoutout to the film’s now-defunct sponsor, Conoco Inc. There’s also the now unfortunate shot of the camera flying over the World Trade Center.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “To Fly!”, though Greg MacGillivray would be nominated for two of his later IMAX films: 1995’s “The Living Sea”, and 2000’s “Dolphins”. For the curious, 1976’s Best Live Action Short winner was “In the Region of Ice”, based on the short story by Joyce Carol Oates.

Other notes 

  • A quick word on IMAX: founded in the late ’60s by Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr, and William C. Shaw, IMAX was created as an attempt to recreate the Cinerama widescreen process with only one camera. IMAX uses 70mm film stock (as opposed to standard 35mm stock), and like Cinerama before it, requires a special projector and theater to play its films. IMAX also benefited from higher picture and sound quality decades before Hollywood caught up with the technology. Fun Fact: the name IMAX is not an acronym, but rather a shortened flip of the phrase “maximum image”. The name was coined when the creators learned that their original title – Multiscreen Corporation – couldn’t be copyrighted.
  • Ezekiel, the hot-air balloonist at the film’s opening, is purely fictional. The first person to fly over the United States in a hot-air balloon was French inventor Jean-Pierre Blanchard in 1783, 40 years before the flight depicted in this movie. But damn it, this is an American story, we can’t start things off with no Frenchman!
  • Yeah, I definitely need to see this movie on an IMAX screen. Still, I can admire a lot of the cinematography from my computer screen. Heck, one of the upside down shots actually made me a little dizzy.
  • This whole movie has an early EPCOT vibe to it, or maybe I’m just thinking of “If You Had Wings“. Come to think of it, without “To Fly!” there is no “Soarin’ Over California“.
  • Among the vintage vehicles in this movie are a covered wagon, a stagecoach, a Wright flyer, and a biplane. My question: are these replicas or was the Smithsonian a little too generous with helping this movie out? “Careful not to damage that plane, we got to get it back to the museum by 5:30.”
  • How can you discuss early flight this much and not show the stock footage of people’s failed attempts at flying?
  • Anytime there’s a biplane/barnstorming scene in a movie, I always think that they’re on their way to kill Cary Grant.
  • I say it every year, and I’ll say it again now: Damn you, Blue Angels!
  • One of the most impressive shots in the film is when a camera flies directly through St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, which I didn’t realize has only been around since the mid-’60s.
  • I can no longer watch hang gliding in a movie without thinking of the hang gliding scene from “Cave Dwellers”. “Gomez! I’ve invented the wheel!”
  • This film’s history of flight ends naturally enough with the Space Age, and our quest to fly among the stars. I’m glad this movie wasn’t made today, otherwise this section would be about how billionaires are trying to send people up into space rather than use their vast wealth to help out with this planet’s multitude of problems. But I digress…
  • The film ends by pointing out that due to the Earth’s rotation around the sun, we are always in flight. Mind blown.
  • Among the credited crew members is Supervising Editor Alexander Hammid. Experimental film buffs (and longtime readers of this blog) may recall Hammid’s work with his then-wife Maya Deren on the landmark experimental film “Meshes of the Afternoon“. Turns out Hammid contributed to many early IMAX films towards the end of his career.

Legacy 

  • “To Fly!” premiered at the Theatre of the National Air and Space Museum on July 1st, 1976, and is still playing there to this day (COVID pending). By virtue of its continued performance, “To Fly!” is one of the most successful IMAX movies ever made, estimated to have been seen by over 100 million viewers in one theater alone!
  • “To Fly!” has played a few other engagements over the years, including as part of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration ceremony in 1981. President Reagan also presented a copy of the film as a gift to the Soviet Union’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, and I like to think this was a tradeoff to get Mr. Gorbachev to tear down a certain wall.
  • One of the film’s longer runs was at the Pictorium theater at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois throughout the ’80s.
  • Sadly, “To Fly!” would be Jim Freeman’s final film, as he died in a helicopter crash just two days before its premiere.
  • Greg MacGillivray is still making IMAX movies, his most recent is “Into America’s Wild”, narrated by Morgan Freeman.
  • MacGillivray also shot the helicopter footage at the beginning of “The Shining” (and one of the endings of “Blade Runner“).
  • And of course, IMAX is still going strong, perhaps best associated today with big Hollywood blockbusters praying that IMAX is enough for you to pay money to see a movie in a theater instead of on your phone. Save us, Christopher Nolan!

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