Now up for grabs in Region A, it’s the Robert Aldrich movie that wins over all that see it. The epitome of Men In Peril adventures, the tale of 14 random oil men marooned in the Sahara is brutal yet optimistic about human cooperation — please, the world needs more of that right now. James Stewart is at his best, stretching his hard-bitten loner persona and tapping into his flying experience. Also with an English-language-best performance from Hardy Krüger. The male group dynamics are absorbing and the suspense powerful — especially when seen cold. No spoilers here!
The Flight of the Phoenix
The Criterion Collection 1116
1965 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 142 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date March 22, 2022 / 39.95
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
Robert Aldrich was an enthusiastic director who believed in everything he set out to do. Film fans that love The Dirty Dozen, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Longest Yard might not even know who Robert Aldrich was; film lovers that like to read analyses of Kiss Me Deadly, Attack and The Legend of Lylah Clare don’t understand why he’s not as celebrated as Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah.
My vote for the Aldrich film that wins on all counts is The Flight of the Phoenix, a big Fox picture that should have been a huge hit. Was star James Stewart suddenly not a draw? Was something wrong with the advertising campaign? After its underperforming first engagements, Phoenix arrived in my town in a Fox ‘double-bill dump’ of non-performers, paired with Modesty Blaise by Joseph Losey, whom Aldrich had once assisted. The audience liked Blaise but was blown away by Phoenix. The suspense was palpable. There were big gasps at the film’s ironic reveal, when we suddenly we fear the show will end abruptly, badly, like the gut-twister The Wages of Fear. And I remember there was real applause at the finale.
Men under pressure: Big faces with BIG blisters.
Aldrich’s dozen sunburned and stubble-bearded plane crash survivors find themselves in a very serious dilemma, marooned with little hope for rescue. We’ve all seen how ugly a group dynamic can become when a bad situation grows worse. But adversity brings out good qualities in men as well. The only other film where just looking at stressed-out male faces is more enjoyable, is The Wild Bunch.
The story’s adventure premise is unlikely but 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 field. Forced down far 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 the English Captain Harris (Peter Finch), an insolent Sergeant (Ronald Fraser), a French Doctor (Christian Marquand), an accountant (Dan Duryea), and a drilling foreman who has suffered a nervous breakdown (Ernest Borgnine). Also on board are three drillers, an American (George Kennedy), a Mexican (Alex Montoya) and a Cockney with a caustic sense of humor (Ian Bannen). Captain Harris thinks that trying to walk a hundred miles across the sand is a good idea. Then passenger Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger) explains that he is an aircraft designer. He believes that a smaller aircraft could be easily assembled from the wreckage of the old one. The wild plan seems at least a hope, but Towns won’t listen because he hates the slide-rule, pushbutton future Dorfmann represents. Meanwhile, the available water will last at most twelve days.
Some classic-era directors specialized in films in which men are challenged to achieve a goal, win a war, or survive an emergency: William Wellman, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, John Ford. Hawks celebrated a tough credo of male camaraderie, while John Ford was fond of inspiring visuals that ennobled and mythologized his heroes. The next-generation director Robert Aldrich usually took an opposite, more cynical approach. His cowboy heroes are double-crossing knaves and his noble warriors in uniform are cutthroat killers. Few institutions are lauded in Aldrich movies, which treat detectives, bomb de-fusers and filmmakers with the same anarchic lack of respect. They’re all loners struggling against hostile forces they don’t understand.
The straight survival tale The Flight of the Phoenix isn’t interested in noble illusions. Director Aldrich has been labeled a liberal, but his show has no political axe to grind. Aramco Oil may be negligent but it isn’t the evil organization seen in H.G. Clouzot’s anti-Capitalist classic The Wages of Fear. Instead of blaming the system Phoenix emphasizes the need for individuals to take responsibility for the group. Marooned in the Sahara with little hope of outside help, this motley bunch needs a miracle. Bad personal chemistry could result in a grown-up replay of The Lord of the Flies.
The smart screenplay avoids the usual nonsense of ‘lost in the desert’ movies. To survive, the men need a leader that can make them work together. And that can’t be made convincing without actors we believe in. The cast for this picture couldn’t be bettered.
“Flying used to be fun, Lew, really. Time was you
could take real pride in just getting there . . .”
The hard-bitten Frank Towns is one of Jame Stewart’s best performances, with none of his ‘aw gosh’ cute act mannerisms. Towns talks nostalgically about the old flying days. But unlike a Hawks or a Ford hero, Frank Towns is also a bitter ‘also ran’ whose need to work have caused him to ignore safety regulations. The plane’s radio isn’t working. Flight assistant Lew Moran, a non-flyer with an alcohol problem, is probably listed as ‘copilot’ on official records. They haven’t even filed a proper flight report. Towns’ likely excuse would be that if he quit his replacement would likely do nothing different.
Positive thinking is sorely needed with this group. Christian Marquand’s Doctor Renaud has quiet strength, but he’s exceptional. 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. In these circumstances Ernest Borgnine’s infantile Trucker Cobb needs to be watched closely.
Marooned in a sea of sand dunes, the motley bunch lacks a proper leader. Peter Finch’s Captain rises to the challenge by insisting on doing something proactive. But like a number of sensible actions attempted, Harris’s plan is cruelly thwarted by the unforgiving desert. We naturally expect the star James Stewart to take command, but that’s the story’s first surprise — he isn’t a great candidate for leadership either. He impatiently vents his frustration on the feeble Trucker Cobb (Borgnine) and on his own buddy Lew.
Pilot Frank Towns has the authority to lead but no plan and no faith that things will turn out for the better. The main conflict arises when Hardy Krüger’s young engineer Heinrich Dorfmann takes control of the group with his ‘crazy’ idea of salvaging a new airplane from the wreckage of the old. Dorfmann couldn’t be more different than Towns. He’s a motivated intellectual who knows his specialty well, and a tireless worker quick to seize authority. Dorfmann’s curt manner provokes undisguised hatred from the others. Towns’ and Dorfmann’s petty tantrums slow down progress on the airplane project. It’s a pecking-order dynamic that arises in any school or Boy Scout troop when personalities clash. Competiton brings out each individual’s essential character.
Towns scowls in protest. He doesn’t want to cede authority to an academic punk, especially not a ‘Kraut.’ That’s where Richard Attenborough’s Lew Moran comes into play. Towns and Moran are good buddies, but they are also co-dependents that support each other’s weaknesses. ‘Weakling’ Lew eventually reveals reserves of stamina, and simple faith. He argues his case with Towns: working to build the Phoenix airplane might maintain morale, and keep the group from collapsing in despair. Lew’s positive attitude and social skills surely save the day as much as Towns’ experience and Dorfmann’s knowledge.
The Flight of the Phoenix delivers the adventure thrills in a grindingly realistic context, where men are faced with no good alternatives. It scares us when one sensible move after another results in something horrible happening. One particularly awful episode leaves Stewart 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 really only had pressed dates to eat they’d surely not leave the animal to rot.
High Adventure and High Tension.
The superior The Flight of the Phoenix doesn’t claim to address ‘larger issues’ or resolve its confrontations with guns. Survival is a cruel game and an unpredictable fate holds all the cards. Being a nice guy means little. The good-hearted passenger that volunteers to accompany Captain Harris on is trek into the desert 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, but just as fallible as anyone else. Good old Lew’s positive outlook is a major plus that can rally his fellow survivors. None of the castaways is used as direct comic relief (thankfully) but Ian Bannen’s surly oil man copes with adversity with back talk and cynical asides that help break the tension. Bannen was nominated for a supporting Oscar.
The others communicate their insecurity without throwing outsized tantrums; even Dan Duryea’s whiner Standish is a solid contributor to the survival project. It’s an emeritus role for Duryea: fans will recall his fierce role opposite James Stewart in Winchester ’73. Ronald Fraser’s malingerer may not be popular, but he pitches in as well. It’s impressive that the group tolerates the proto-superman notions of Hardy Krüger’s Dorfmann, when he unilaterally allots himself extra rations of water. Dorfmann reminds us of Walter Slezak’s German sea captain in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. Even if Dorfmann is perceived as the enemy, everyone senses that he’s the one person on board who can save them.
I’m now much more forgiving of Ernest Borgnine’s broad performance as Trucker Cobb. The beloved actor is admirably understated in the director’s The Dirty Dozen, but is then three times too BIG in The Legend of Lylah Clare.
Natural versus Artificial Suspense.
Aldrich was no Hitchcock where suspense is concerned. His What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? expends the better part of a reel on a ‘will she reach the telephone in time?’ ordeal that’s strictly mechanical in function. On a second viewing it just feels drawn out, vaguely meretricious. Here the suspense is an ever-growing concern, an organic worry. We’re made nervous just by the appearance of painful-looking blisters on the men’s faces. The suspense is about things too frightening to discuss openly: is Dorfmann’s airplane idea just crazy? Will they have the energy to build it? What if the motor doesn’t start? Will they all be killed trying to fly it? Robert Aldrich leaves all of these grim possibilies open.
At about the film’s 3/4 mark a horrible revelation suddenly reduces the castaways’ hopes 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. I can still remember the chill that set in: our nerves were already shot and we feared that the words ‘The End’ might suddenly appear, followed by a fade-out. Author Elleston Trevor, screenwriter Lukas Heller and Robert Aldrich really had us in their pockets.
(Spoiler paragraph:) Near the end comes a terrific showdown of personalities that realigns the balance of power in the group. When it’s time for the plane to fly Frank Towns again seizes command as only a stubborn old man can. To get the engine going involves a device called a Kauffman starter, a kick-start mechanism to spin the prop that uses a charge similar to a shotgun shell. Towns has only seven of these cartridges, and expends several without success. Yet again we experience the hollow-stomach feeling of imminent disaster. If the engine can’t be restarted there’s no ‘next step.’
Towns falls back on his intuition to sacrifice one charge to clean out the cylinders. Heinrich Dorfmann goes apoplectic: it’s book knowledge versus hard-earned experience. For all we know, Towns may be purposely sabotaging the starting so as to ‘win’ his ego battle with the German designer. Or he could simply be passively refusing to kill everybody trying to fly what he believes is a death trap. Frank Towns gets what he wants from the confrontation: a reaffirmation of his role as leader. Sometimes we need stubborn SOBs on our side, too.
We don’t normally come to a Robert Aldrich film for moments of touching compassion, but Flight has one of those as well. Gabriele Tinti’s injured Italian boy 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 montage of men letting down their macho guard. We want all to survive.
Another Robert Aldrich scene plays like an inspiration for half the filmography of Steven Spielberg. During Phoenix’s most tense moment the exhausted survivors stand in desperation as a group, crossing their fingers, shouting and shaking their fists. Editor Michael Luciano (who garnered the film’s second Academy nomination) maintains this agony through a truck-in on Lew Moran’s tearful face as he falls to his knees in gratitude. It’s the template for the classic ‘awe moment’ in many Spielberg films, that can sometimes seem forced. The wonder, deliverance and transcendence here are all hard-earned. If Aldrich tacked on a final scene of his characters at a table, eating cake & ice cream and laughing, we’d still applaud. This picture works for me every time.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Flight of the Phoenix is a 2K digital restoration that addresses problems with earlier transfers. It restores the film’s slightly sun-bleached colors, dropping the pretty-picture chroma a few clicks. With faces less ruddy-looking the makeup once again looks 100% real. That nasty blister on the bridge of James Stewart’s nose is a welcome blow against the glamorous norm.
I personally favor this new encoding over the Masters of Cinema 2016 Region B disc, which had a lot of dirt and occasional distortion in the soundtrack. It’s nice to drop the old memory of this show’s first scene, a shot of the sun covered in dirt and scratches.
Composer Frank 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. Devol also gives us a musical break when Ronald Fraser hallucinates that belly dancer (Barrie Chase of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World) out of the desert wastes. Some critics chided Phoenix for this scene, as if in need of something to criticize. Yes, it gives the show ‘a little sex’ to sell, but that ought to be one obvious concern in this all-male saga. If she wasn’t there, the critics would have complained that there were no women in the picture.
Criterion’s producer generated two new extras. Director Walter Hill and critic-author Alain Silver are active Robert Aldrich boosters, for his films and also for his service leading the Director’s Guild. Their first-rate analysis of the show is accompanied by rare photos. We learn that James Stewart was independently interested in Phoenix before finding out that Aldrich had the project. Aldrich couldn’t understand why Phoenix wasn’t a big hit — it’s a superior audience-pleaser with no obvious flaws.
In a second video piece James Stewart biographer Donald Dewey gives us several good minutes on the actor, with insights into his un-publicized off-screen personality and his service as a pilot in WW2. Both video featurettes give us new perspectives on the subject at hand, without re-telling the career of the great director and actor.
Gina Telaroli’s insert essay looks at the characterizations created by Hardy Krüger and James Stewart. The insert foldout blends in nicely with the artwork painting by Sean Phillips. Another surprise awaits inside Criterion’s disc case, an amusing toy plane insert – ‘you put it together yourself.’ I think disc producer Abbey Lustgarten had some fun with this one.
When first broadcast on Network television Phoenix was appended with a short tribute to the film’s stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who 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 his son William Aldrich, and the handsome Greek musician is Peter Bravos, his son-in-law, married to the film’s script supervisor, Adell Aldrich.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Flight of the Phoenix
Supplements: discussion of the film and Robert Aldrich, with filmmaker Walter Hill and film scholar Alain Silver; biographer Donald Dewey on actor James Stewart and his service as a bomber pilot; trailer, foldout insert essay by Gina Telaroli.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 15, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson