Forgotten amid Robert Aldrich’s more critic-friendly movies is this superb suspense picture, an against-all-odds thriller that pits an old-school pilot against a push-button young engineer with his own kind of male arrogance. Can a dozen oil workers and random passengers ‘invent’ their way out of an almost certain death trap? It’s a late-career triumph for James Stewart, at the head of a sterling ensemble cast. I review a UK disc in the hope of encouraging a new restoration.
The Flight of the Phoenix
Region B Blu-ray
(will not play in domestic U.S. players)
Masters of Cinema / Eureka Entertainment
1965 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 142 min. / Street Date September 12, 2016 / £12.95
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
Big faces with BIG blisters.
A unique movie about castaways on an ocean of sand, 1965’s The Flight of the Phoenix is one of Robert Aldrich’s most satisfying 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. His dozen sunburned and stubble-bearded plane crash survivors are a fascinating group to watch as a bad situation gets worse, and the group dynamic among the parched & starving castaways turns ugly. The only other film where just looking at stressed-out male faces is more enjoyable, is The Wild Bunch.
The story’s premise is unlikely, if not impossible. Cargo 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 forr off their scheduled course and 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 Captain named Harris (Peter Finch), an insolent Sergeant (Ronald Fraser), a French Doctor (Christian Marquand), a drilling foreman suffering from a nervous breakdown (Ernest Borgnine), 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 Krüger) is an aircraft designer. Dorfmann 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, the available water will last at most twelve days.
For a number of years Howard Hawks held 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 inspiring visuals. Robert Aldrich usually plays with those twin approaches to adventure in the negative sense: his cowboy heroes are double-crossing knaves (Vera Cruz) and his noble warriors in uniform 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 old-time pilot Towns is unwilling to admit that the world has left him behind. He talks nostalgically about the old days when ‘just getting there’ felt great, a sentiment that resonates warmly with anybody who knew or is related to an ‘old time’ flier. But only when his flying boxcar airplane finds itself in trouble do we learn that Towns has broken most of the safety rules of the fliers of Only Angels Have Wings. He’s done little or nothing to see that his plane is maintained — his stubborn pride and desperation to work has kept him flying substandard aircraft against the code of his profession. He hasn’t even filed a proper flight report. In the aftermath of the crash, Towns is equally incapable of facing up to his own culpability. 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 Lew, an alcoholic. Lew, a non-flyer, is probably listed as ‘copilot’ on official records. Passenger Dorfmann is right when he wonders about the lack of a backup for the elderly pilot.
It’s interesting that liberal American director Aldrich made a film about a disaster associated with an oil company, but none of the caustic politics of H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. Aramco Oil cuts corners by hiring an unfit aircrew 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 responsibility for errors in an organization ultimately comes back to the individual. Aviation ethics requires a pilot to refuse to fly under unsafe conditions, and it’s likely that Frank Towns’ defense would be that, even if he quit, his replacement would likely do the same thing. Interestingly, James Stewart had previously starred in No Highway in the Sky, an aviation picture in which he plays an aircraft metallurgical engineer. Believing that the design of a particular airplane is faulty, the engineer sabotages a plane rather than put passengers at risk. The earlier show insists on a much more altruistic view of the human condition. I’d say that James Stewart can be a little frustrating in No Highway, where he interprets a scientist as a ‘magic fuddy-duddy.’ The hard-bitten pilot in Phoenix is one of Stewart’s best performances, far removed from the lazy ‘aw gosh’ cute act he frequently pulled in everything from westerns to melodramas.
Marooned in a sea of sand dunes, the men find they’re a motley bunch without a proper leader. Stewart’s Towns is the skipper, but he has no patience for the weaker as seen when he showers abuse on the feeble Trucker Cobb (Borgnine). Towns’ only response to the tough spot they’re in is to pretend that all will be okay, and turn quietly inward. Towns and Richard Attenborough’s Lew Moran are co-dependents in that each tolerates and supports the other’s weaknesses. At their best they function like a marriage: two misanthropes forming a single complete personality. ‘Weakling’ Lew eventually proves to have reserves of stamina. His positive attitude and social skill saves the survivors as surely as Towns’ experience or Dorfmann’s knowledge.
Positive thinking is sorely needed with this group. Christian Marquand’s French Doctor Renaud has quiet strength, but he’s exceptional. Stewing in his self-loathing, Frank Towns holds most of his castaway companions in contempt. Dan Duryea’s worrywart accountant Standish lacks common sense. Ian Bannen’s smart aleck Cockney Crow and Ronald Fraser’s demoralized soldier Watson make sick jokes about their poor chances for survival. Addled loony Ernest Borgnine fumbles in a state of infantile confusion, and is a complete liability.
The traditional authority figure on board is Peter Finch’s Captain Harris. 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. How many movies have we seen in which castaways throw away their canteens when the water runs out? What are they going to put water in if they do find some? The Captain rises to the challenge 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, it is cruelly thwarted by the unforgiving desert.
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 an anomalous positive chapter in Robert Aldrich’s long string of apocalyptic-themed movies. Frankly, it’s not easy to tell a story in which people cooperate for the good of all — cynicism is the default position. But seeing men solve tough technical problems to survive makes us feel good about people and better about ourselves. That’s the basic appeal of the uplifting Apollo 13.
Phoenix scares us when the survivors’ every reasonable and prudent move turns out horribly. When a small caravan of Bedouins beds down over the next dune, Finch and Doctor Renaud 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 a bleak ‘Anthony Mann’ moment, venting his rage on a lame camel. Pauline Kael’s review sniffed tentatively at Flight of the Phoenix but she asked a good question: are camels edible? If those guys were feasting on little more than pressed dates, they’d surely not leave the animal to rot.
The biggest conflict arises when the young German engineer Dorfmann takes control of the group with his ‘crazy’ idea of salvaging a new airplane from the wreckage of the old. Towns 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 ‘Kraut.’ But Lew intervenes and the building of the Phoenix airplane commences, if only to keep the group from collapsing in despair.
Dorfmann makes an excellent contrast with Towns – he’s 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 manner that provokes undisguised hatred from the others. His competition with Towns is an exercise in petty politics, with one or the other throwing tantrums that slow down progress on the airplane project. It’s a dynamic that arises in the pecking order in any school or Boy Scout troop when personalities clash, 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 one down. Unlike Aldrich’s previous film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the suspense in this ordeal doesn’t diminish after multiple viewings. There are no preordained sequences like the crude telephone suspense bit in Baby Jane, that after the first viewing just feels drawn-out. It makes us nervous just to see the build-up of the painful-looking blisters on the men’s faces. Kudos to makeup supervisor Ben Nye, plus assistants Ed Butterworth, Terry Miles, Jack Stone, William Turner, Frank Westmore and Dee Manges for making the desert ordeal seem real.
The Flight of the Phoenix is unusually long, and about 3/4 of the way through a horrible revelation momentarily reduces the hopes of the castaways to nothing. James Stewart’s pilot collapses in disbelief, while the camera zeroes in on Richard Attenborough’s despairing laughter. All seems to be lost, and as Lew goes into hysterics, the camera begins to pull back, as if we might be looking at the final shot. By 1966 audiences had seen plenty of movies with cruel trick endings. I can still remember the chill that set in as we thought that the words ‘The End’ might suddenly appear, followed by a fade-out. Our nerves were already shot. Author Elleston Trevor, screenwriter Lukas Heller and Robert Aldrich really had us in their pockets.
There’s a great showdown near the end, a settling of accounts that realigns the balance of power in the group. When it’s time to see if the plane will fly, Frank Towns again seizes command as only a stubborn old man can. Heinrich Dorfmann’s plan is to get the engine going with a device called a Kauffman starter, basically a kick-start mechanism to spin the prop, which uses charges similar to shotgun shells. Towns has only seven of these charges, and when three or four are used up without success, he falls back on his intuition to sacrifice one charge to clean out the cylinders. Dorfmann 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 the German designer. Or he could be sincerely trying to save lives by preventing the flight of what he believes is a death trap. Frank Towns gets what he wants from the confrontation: a reaffirmation of his role as leader.
The Flight of the Phoenix is a superior adventure story, a tale of conflict that doesn’t involve ‘larger issues’ or confrontations with guns. Survival is a cruel game, with men being ‘chosen’ to die by unpredictable fate. Being a nice guy doesn’t save one. One good-hearted passenger volunteers to accompany Captain Harris on is trek into the desert. He is almost immediately forgotten by his comrades.
Robert Aldrich’s camera seems to understand each man’s method of dealing with adversity. The British martinet turns out to be as noble as his rank, and the silly flying attendant provides the civilized manners and positive outlook sorely lacking in his fellow survivors.
Aldrich normally obtains exceptional performances only when the chemistry happens to click. He ‘directs’ in the casting process and then gives the actors great latitude. I’m now much more forgiving of Ernest Borgnine’s performance in this picture, which always seemed too big and too broad. But how should Borgnine have played Trucker Cobb? The actor gives an understated performance in the director’s The Dirty Dozen, but then grossly overacts in The Legend of Lylah Clare. I think Aldrich just didn’t know how to pull some actors back — his The Big Knife is an orgy of scenery chewing.
Borgnine really isn’t bad, but the rest of the ensemble is sensational. The actors communicate the group’s shaky morale without throwing outsized tantrums, and even the whiner Standish is a solid worker in the survival project. The message seems to be that when men have a chance to work toward a goal, there is always hope. Instead of blaming each other, the very different George Kennedy and Ian Bannen get along. Ronald Fraser’s malingerer may not be popular, but he pitches in as well. And it’s pretty impressive that the group can tolerate the proto-superman notions of Hardy Krüger’s Dorfmann. He reminds us of Walter Slezak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat: the German sea captain is the enemy, but he’s also the only person on board capable of saving everybody.
Aldrich’s screen work doesn’t contain all that many scenes of touching compassion, but Flight has a beauty. The injured Italian boy played by Gabriel Tinti hears Connie Francis singing Senza Fine on Trucker Cobb’s radio, and is reminded 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. This time taken out for a privileged moment with our group sets the film apart from Aldrich’s less sensitive work.
I decided I needed to write a review for this UK edition when a Robert Aldrich scene suddenly looked like an inspiration for half the filmography of Steven Spielberg. The Flight of the Phoenix takes its time throughout, making us feel the desolation of being lost in the desert. When suspense scenes happen they’re never rushed. (Spoiler) The launching of the jerry-rigged airplane is a drawn-out affair that begins with that Kauffman Starter business. Then the exhausted survivors stand watching the propeller spin, waiting for the engine to catch. We experience the hollow-stomach feeling that one gets when the car stalls out fifty miles from nowhere. You pause to think of what can possibly be done if it can’t be restarted.
The scene then builds slowly, a real triumph of pacing by editor Michael Luciano. We pick out all the emotions of fear and desperation as the men shout and cross their fingers and shake their fists. When we finally truck in on Lew Moran’s tearful face as he falls to his knees in gratitude. It’s identical to the classic ‘awe moment’ in early Spielberg films — but without a hint of artificial hype. The wonder, deliverance and transcendence is all earned. These guys can do no wrong. If Aldrich tacked on a final scene of his characters at a table, eating cake & ice cream and laughing, we’d still applaud.
I saw The Flight of the Phoenix twice in a theater in 1965, and the audience applauded more than once. I can fully understand Robert Aldrich’s disappointment when his film didn’t make money — everyone who saw it, loved it; it still plays like gangbusters. Was it the advertising, or the non-trendy cast?
Masters of Cinema’s Region B Blu-ray of The Flight of the Phoenix is a good rendering of this curious winner from Fox. It does not appear to be some marvelous restoration, and could be the same transfer used for the domestic DVD in 2003. The improved contrast, sharpness and stability is a positive upgrade. We do wish for a restoration that would clean up some shots that are dirty and give the soundtrack a ‘Mike Matessino-‘ style going-over for quality. Some bits of the music track appear to distort, just as they have on all home video versions I’ve seen. I should think that this picture would be a natural for Twilight Time, and I prefer to imagine that they are waiting for a better version to come off the Fox restoration assembly line.
I run hot and cold on the music track. DeVol’s main theme sounds too much like an imitation of Lawrence of Arabia. But elsewhere the music ratchets up the tension without being obvious. This is a movie that makes us nervous because we fear that it is going to betray us with an appalling downbeat surprise ending. DeVol doesn’t get in the way of that tension.
Masters of Cinema has added a couple of extras. A video with critic Sheldon Hall gives us a full and detailed rundown on Robert Aldrich’s entire career. An original trailer is included. A twenty-page illustrated pamphlet contains a lengthy essay on the making of the movie by Neil Sinyard, who at one point likens Aldrich’s film to ‘a kind of geriatric Lord of the Flies.
I was always disappointed that critics couldn’t help but rag on Phoenix for its concession to the marketers that surely cried for ‘a little sex’ to sell. Ronald Fraser hallucinates a belly dancer (Barrie Chase of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World) out of the desert wastes — to ignite female hopes that there might be a romance in this all-male saga. If she wasn’t there, the critics would complain that there are no women in the picture.
When first broadcast on television, I remember the film being appended with a short tribute to Paul Mantz, the stunt pilot who flew the plane and died in an on-set accident. They showed a take of the plane nearing liftoff on the floor of the Mojave Desert. It’s speeding along at maybe 90 mph when its fuselage suddenly folds in half.
One last all-in-the-family note: both of the crash fatalities on the plane are 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.
I’m aware of a remake of this movie. . . if I’m to see it, it will have to catch me first.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Flight of the Phoenix
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Video speech by Sheldon Hall, Trailer, Illustrated pamphlet with essay by Neil Sinyard.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 20, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson