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The Flight of the Phoenix

The Flight of the Phoenix
Fox Home Entertainment
1965 / color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 142 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 14.98
Starring James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Krüger, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Ronald Fraser, Christian Marquand, Dan Duryea, George Kennedy, Gabriele Tinti, Alex Montoya, Peter Bravos, William Aldrich, Barrie Chase
Cinematography Joseph Biroc
Stunt Pilot Paul Mantz
Art Direction William Glasgow
Film Editor Michael Luciano
Original Music Frank De Vol
Written by Lukas Heller from the novel by Elleston Trevor
Produced and directed by Robert Aldrich

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Flight of the Phoenix is one of Robert Aldrich's best films. Although it has less of his anarchic fire than some others, it takes a solid adventure story and creates winning portraits of men under pressure. Aldrich never had a firm control of actors, and in this film it's Ernest Borgnine who's allowed to overplay in some scenes. But the dozen sunburned, stubble-bearded plane crash survivors are a fascinating group to watch. The only other film where just looking at stressed-out male faces is more enjoyable, is The Wild Bunch.


Pilot Frank Towns (James Stewart) and assistant Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) run into a sandstorm while ferrying passengers from a remote Saharan oil well. Forced down way off their scheduled course, with no means of communication, the group is in big trouble. The bitter Towns blames himself for two fatalities and one serious injury, a young Italian (Gabrielle Tinti). The survivors include an English Army Captain Harris (Peter Finch) and his insolent Sergeant (Ronald Fraser), a foreman suffering from a nervous breakdown (Ernest Borgnine) and the doctor in charge (Christian Marquand), an accountant (Dan Duryea), and three drillers, an American (George Kennedy), a Mexican (Alex Montoya) and a caustic cockney (Ian Bannen). As Captain Harris debates trying to walk a hundred miles across the sand, it comes to Lew Moran's attention that another passenger, Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger) is an aircraft designer, and has the idea that a smaller aircraft could be easily assembled from the wreckage of the old one. This wild plan seems at least a hope, but Towns won't listen to it ... because he hates the slide-rule, pushbutton future Dorfmann represents. Meanwhile, their water will only last eight or ten days ...

Howard Hawks had the patent on the Male Professional Group and its code of conduct. John Ford had a habit of ennobling bunches of sailors or miners with his visuals. Robert Aldrich usually plays with these twin approaches to adventure in the negative sense: his cowboy heroes are double-crossing knaves (Vera Cruz) and his noble warriors are cutthroat killers (The Dirty Dozen). Few authorities or institutions have been lauded in his movies, which treat detectives, bomb de-fusers, filmmakers and soldiers with the same anarchic lack of respect - they're all loners in a meaningless struggle against hostile forces they don't understand.

At the center of the The Flight of the Phoenix is the destruction of the Hawksian adventure hero. James Stewart's an old-time pilot unwilling to admit that the world has left him behind. He talks nostalgically about the old days when 'just getting there' felt great, but has let his standards slip. When his flying boxcar airplane finds itself in trouble, the bottom line is that he's broken most of the rules of the fliers of Only Angels Have Wings: his unmaintained plane is in lousy shape, and he hasn't done anything about it. He's unprepared to deal with the physical problems before him, and equally unprepared to face up to his own culpability - his stubborn pride and desperation to work has kept him flying substandard aircraft against the code of his profession. Unlike a Hawks or a Ford hero, he's a sour Joe, recoiling from the deaths he's caused by lashing out at his assistant Richard Attenborough, an alcoholic probably listed as 'copilot' on official records, yet cannot fly.

It's interesting that caustic American director Aldrich's film about a disaster associated with an oil oompany, has none of the critical politics of H.G. Clouzot's The Wages of Fear. Aramco Oil cuts corners by hiring an unfit aircrew (faking a copilot, even, when the pilot is old enough to have a heart attack) and flying a decrepit plane that doesn't even have a radio. Some of the drillers express cynical attitudes toward the company, which is at least humane enough to send for a doctor to care for Trucker Cobb. The inference is that James Stewart's pilot has personally let quality slip in order to retain his job.

When they're marooned in a sea of sand dunes, (Attenborough hasn't even filed a proper flight report), the men find they're a motley bunch without a proper leader. Stewart is the skipper, but has no patience for the weaker members of the group, as when he showers abuse on the feeble Trucker Cobb (Borgnine). His only response to the tough spot they're in is to pretend that all will be okay, and turn quietly inward. Attenborough and he are co-dependents - each tolerates the other's weaknesses and provides support. When at their best they function like a marriage: two misanthropes forming a single complete personality. 'Weakling' Attenborough eventually proves of equal strength, as his social skills save the survivors as surely as Stewart's experience or Hardy Kruger's knowledge.

Stewart has varying levels of contempt for his castaway companions. Accountant Duryea is a no-nothing worrywart lacking common sense. Smart aleck Ian Bannen and demoralized soldier Ronald Fraser make sick jokes about their poor chances for survival. Loony Ernest Borgnine is a complete liability.

The traditional authority figure on board is Captain Harris (Finch). He rises to the occasion by insisting on doing something instead of waiting for the water to run dry. Walking out of the desert is a reasonably sensible long shot, but like all the sensible actions taken in the film, is cruelly thwarted by the unforgiving desert. In the average Saharan adventure, being stranded is usually a one-reel problem broken by the discovery of an oasis surrounded by beautiful maidens, or a rescue by whatever unlikely method might come along. If the film has a message, it's that human survival is dependent on people coming together to create something new. This makes The Flight of the Phoenix a positive chapter in Robert Aldrich's long string of apocalyptic-themed movies.

When a rescue opportunity arises, the group handles it well and wisely. A small caravan beds down over the next dune, and Finch and the idealistic doctor (Christian Marquand) are the right men to send out to make tentative contact. The horrible result leaves the group in even worse straits than before. Stewart is left with his only 'Anthony Mann' moment, venting his rage on a lame camel left behind by the Arabs.  1

But the real conflict arises when the young German engineer Dorfmann takes control of the group with his 'crazy' idea of building a new airplane from the wreckage of the old. Stewart scowls in protest, but we properly guess that his dismissal of the plan is an arrogant bluff; he doesn't want to cede authority to an academic punk, especially not a German. But Attenborough intervenes and the building of the Phoenix airplane commences, if only to keep the group from collapsing in despair.

Dorfmann is an excellent contrast to Stewart - a vain little man who knows his specialty and not much more, a tireless worker quick to seize authority. His German style includes a curt politeness that provokes undisguised hatred from the others. His competition with Stewart is an exercise in petty politics, with one or the other throwing tantrums or refusing to allow the airplane project to continue. It's a dynamic that arises in any school or Boy Scout troop when personalities clash with the pecking order, bringing out each individual's essential character.

The rest of this long and harrowing tale is an exercise from the Attrition School of suspense - it wears you down. Unlike What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the nature of this story supports the ordeal - there are no preordained sequences like the crude telephone suspense bit in Baby Jane, that never works after the first viewing. Seeing Phoenix when new in 1966 shook us all to our toes.  2

(big spoiler)

The Flight of the Phoenix is unusually long, and about 3/4 of the way through there is a horrible revelation that for a moment reduces the hopes of the castaways to nothing. Stewart collapses in disbelief, while the camera concentrates on Richard Attenborough's despairing laughter. All seems to be lost, and as Attenborough goes into hysterics, the camera begins to pull back. By 1966 we were ready for trick endings, and I can still remember the chill that set in as we thought that 'The End' might suddenly fade up onto the screen, and the movie might be over. It still had half an hour to go, but our nerves were already shot.

There's a great showdown near the end, when Stewart and Kruger must get the engine going with a device called a Kauffman starter, basically a kick-start mechanism to spin the prop, that uses charges similar to shotgun shells. Stewart has only seven of them, and when three or four are used up, falls back on his intuition to sacrifice one charge to clean out the cylinders. Kruger goes apoplectic over the 'irrational' decision - knowledge against experience. For all we know, Stewart may be purposely sabotaging the starting, so as to 'win' in his ego battle with Kruger, or he may be sincerely trying to save lives by preventing the flight of a plane he knows is a death trap. He gets what he wants from the confrontation: a reaffirmation of his role as leader.  3

The Flight of the Phoenix takes us on a journey into conflicts between real men under pressure, and is a superior adventure story. It also has a touching scene atypical of Robert Aldrich. The dying Italian boy played by Gabriel Tinti hears Connie Francis singing Senza Fine on Trucker Cobb's radio, a song that reminds him of his wife back in Italy. Aldrich intercuts the faces of the men reacting to Tinti's emotions. It's a beautiful moment of men letting down their macho guard, and sets the film apart from Aldrich's less sensitive work.

Fox's DVD of The Flight of the Phoenix redeems 35 years of watching the film in grainy pan-scanned television presentations. When I rented the film for school, it was hard-matted through the titles, and afterwards zoomed in to full frame, just like the tv prints. On DVD the picture is wider and much more satisfying. The soundtrack is beefy and clear (it was always slightly distorted on television), with DeVol's energetic but rather literal music score coming across strongly. It's effective during the film's marketing gambit, when a delirious Ronald Fraser hallucinates a belly dancer (Barrie Chase of Les Girls) out of the desert wastes - to ignite female hopes that there might be a romance in this all-male saga.  4

The only extra is a trailer in three language versions - English, Spanish and Portuguese. At just $14.98, this is a real bargain.

An all-in-the-family note: the two crash fatalities are both related to the director. The beefy Playboy reader is William Aldrich, his son, and the Greek musician is Peter Bravos, his son-in-law, married to the film's script supervisor, Adell Aldrich.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Flight of the Phoenix rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2003


1. Which always begs the question posed by Pauline Kael - can one eat a camel? If those guys were feasting on little more than pressed prunes or dates, they'd surely not leave the animal to rot.

2. - on a double bill with Modesty Blaise - what a great night!

3. I got to watch The Flight of the Phoenix with my father, an airplane mechanic, who thought that the impromptu airplane redesign in the movie was possible but unlikely. The building part was less iffy than rigging the controls and flying them without proper testing. Also, the key part of the construction would be the rejoining of the new right wing, which in the film is shown by simply aligning it onto a set of welded mounts. The stress on a plane in flight is tremendous, requiring (in a traditional plane) a rigid airframe. Where the new wing joins the port boom that becomes the new fuselage, a simple weld & bolt job wouldn't do - under stress the wing would just fold up. My father accepted the story at face value, however, and added that perhaps the structure was reinforced by a new crosspiece linking the two wings.

When the film was first shown on television, I remember it being appended with a short tribute to Paul Mantz, the stunt pilot who flew the plane and died in an accident. They showed a take of the plane nearing liftoff on the floor of the Mojave Desert, when the fuselage suddenly folded in half, killing the pilot.


4. DeVol is one of Aldrich's weaker 'associates' - his score for Phoenix is embarrassingly derivative of Lawrence of Arabia, and drags in obtrusive little themes for every situation and character. It's not so noticeable on a first viewing, but after a few go-rounds, we wish the film were allowed the stark purity afforded something like The Wages of Fear, where the score never telegraphs the action, or tells us how to react.

5. Boys and men look to identification figures to decide what's acceptable in behavior and what's not; in this picture we have a nice selection of possibilities, each with flaws. Stewart is refreshingly unlike his earlier Western heroes, true blue types with a single neurosis to provide coloration. He's the sentimental favorite, but not necessarily the kind of guy one would warm up to in real life. Peter Finch's officer is also old school, reminiscent to a degree of Alec Guinness's Colonel Nicholson. He's certainly noble, but a bit stiff, perhaps too civilized, and doesn't have all of what it takes to inspire real confidence. Nerdy Hardy Kruger is even more pigeonholed, and lacks the manly experience we like in our role models. The rest of the crew are hangers-on and cynical comedy relief, a good bunch of guys to have a beer with. Gabriele Tinti we don't get to know too well, and Mexican Alex Montoya is the one man whose fate is hardly even mentioned in passing. The nicest guy is definitely the French doctor, Christian Marquand ... and we know what happens to nice guys in pictures like this.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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