The film opens with a brief, comic introductory segment on the history of flight, narrated by James Robertson Justice and featuring American comedian Red Skelton (in a cameo appearance) depicting a recurring character whose aerial adventures span the centuries, in a series of silent blackout vignettes that incorporate actual stock footage of unsuccessful attempts at early aircraft. This was Skelton's final feature film appearance; coincidentally he was in Europe filming scenes for the 1964-1965 season of his television series, The Red Skelton Show.
This is followed by a whimsical animated opening credit sequence drawn by renowned satirical caricaturist Ronald Searle, accompanied by the film's title song. (Another animated sequence closes the film.)
A recurring "gag" suggested by Darryl F. Zanuck concerned his girlfriend, Irina Demick who sequentially played Brigitte (who is French), Marlene (German), Ingrid (Swedish), Franoise (Belgian), Yvette (Bulgarian) and Betty (British) as a lookalike flirtatious character who is constantly being pursued by pilot Pierre Dubois, played by Jean-Pierre Cassel. The American lead, Stuart Whitman was selected over the first choice of Dick Van Dyke, whose agents never contacted him about the offer, but the majority of the cast were British actors.
Sarah Miles plays the daughter of Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), a newspaper magnate whose favourite to win his race is his daughter's fianc, Richard Mays (James Fox), flying an Antoinette monoplane. Lord Rawnsley sums up the expectation that a "Brit" should win the competition: "The trouble with these international affairs is they attract foreigners." An international cast plays the array of contestants, most of whom live up to their national stereotypes, including the fanatically by-the-book, monocle-wearing Prussian officer (Gert Frbe) flying an Eardley-Billing biplane, impetuous Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi), an amorous Frenchman (Cassel) in a Santos-Dumont Demoiselle, the rugged American cowboy Orvil Newton (Stuart Whitman) flying a Bristol Boxkite (impersonating a "Curtiss"), who falls for Lord Rawnsley's daughter Patricia, who was also Richard Mays' girlfriend, causing a love triangle.
The main entertainment comes from the amusing dialogue and characterisations and the daring aerial stunts, with a dash of heroism and gentlemanly conduct thrown in for good measure. Terry-Thomas plays the cheating Sir Percival Ware-Armitage, an Avro Triplane-flying rogue who "never leaves anything to chance". With the help of his bullied and downtrodden servant Courtney (Eric Sykes), he sabotages other aircraft or drugs their pilots - only to get his comeuppance in the end. The race sets out with 14 competitors but, one by one, the contenders drop out, after stops at Dover and Calais, the few survivors land triumphantly in Paris. Orvil Newton loses his chance to take first place when he stops to rescue Emilio Ponticelli from his burning aircraft. Richard Mays wins the race for Britain, but insists on calling the race a tie with Orvil Newton, and sharing the prize money with the now-bankrupt Newton. The final scene shows Orvil and Patricia kissing, then being interrupted by a strange noise . . .all of those at the flying field look up to see a flight of modern jet fighters roaring overhead, as the narrator notes that the jet can make the trip in a matter of minutes . . .
. . .but then we see the passenger terminal at a fogbound airport, as a flight cancellation is announced. One frustrated passenger turns out to be Skelton, who gets a gleam in his eyes as he starts to make wing-flapping motions with his arms!