Robert Aldrich’s FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965) is a story of struggle, team work and survival. With a splendid cast, the diverse array of characters adds to this solid story. Based on the 1964 novel of the same title, written by Elleston Trevor, this film was not exactly a big hit at the box office at the time. But since then, it has slowly become a favorite among many classic film fans… including me.
Our story begins via an aircraft en route to Benghazi, which today may evoke a very different image than this film’s take back in 1965. We are immediately placed within the twin-engine Fairchild C-82 aircraft carrying oil company cargo and passengers, piloted by veteran aviator Frank Towns (James Stewart) and co-pilot/navigator Lew Moran (Sir Richard Attenborough). The rest of the passengers/cast:
Captain Harris… (Peter Finch)
Heinrich Dorfmann… (Hardy Kruger)
Trucker Cobb… (Ernest Bourgine)
Crow… (Ian Bannen)
Sargeant Watson… (Ronald Fraser)
Dr. Renaud… (Christian Marquand)
Standish… (Dan Duryea)
Bellamy… (George Kennedy)
Carlos… (Alex Montoya)
Tasso… (Peter Bravos)
Gariele… (Gabriele Tinti)
Bill… (William Aldrich, brother of the director)
Farida… (Barrie Chase)
Due to an abrupt sand storm, the engines each blow out and they make a crash landing in the desert. Upon sudden impact, cargo is dramatically shifted, resulting in the immediate deaths of a couple of the passengers and leaving one heavily injured. The remaining team soon reveal their differing personalities and often conflicting views on survival tactics. This adds to the tension as we dig deeper into each of the character’s own views on how to live and who to follow.
There are many films that depict tales of survival and triumph with an impressive ensemble cast. Ronald Neame/Irwin Allen’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), John Sturges’ THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and Alfred Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT (1944) come to mind. But this film does a particularly marvelous job of exploring the complexities of each of these unique characters. We get to know these characters more so than simply what they do for a living. We see their strengths and frailties- the warts and all.
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX is deeply layered in shades of gray. When Captain Harris dutifully goes out to survey a dangerous situation when a small group of bandits camp nearby, we see that Harris is a strictly ‘by-the-book’ military man who refuses to compromise, even at high risk and when it means his own demise. But we respect him for going out on his own terms. However, in sharp contrast I find enormous disrespect for Sergeant Watson when he refuses his direct order to accompany Harris, his British Army superior. And yet it is the cowardly and smug Watson who avoids being murdered by the bandits due to his own path to survival.
Ernest Bourgnine’s portrayal of the slow-witted foreman, Trucker Cobb is a genuine and fantastic performance. With more expression than dialogue in several of his scenes, we peek into the soul of Cobb. And as such, we invest great compassion for his misguided motivations, despite that leading to his painfully ill-fated ending.
The triangle of tension and social dynamics amongst Moran, Towns and Dorfmann is a main example of how complex these characters get. Brilliantly portrayed by Attenborough, we first see navigator Moran as a simple peace maker. There is incredible tension between the ‘old-school’ pilot Towns and Dorfmann, the straight-laced aeronautical designer. These two are complete opposites in every way, and power struggle becomes a huge point of contention several times throughout the story. Moran is able to convince Towns that he must concede to Dorfmann, no matter how much Towns finds him disagreeable and insulting. He persuades Towns that Dorfmann’s far-fetched idea to rebuild a new airplane from parts of the crashed plane is likely their only hope. In the process of swallowing his pride, Towns deflects by verbally ripping into Moran. While Towns took full responsibility and guilt for the plane crash from the beginning, he now rages against Moran- stating that his alcoholism that may be to blame for their ill-fated situation.
Stewart does an impeccable job of portraying this very human character of this traditionalist aviator. He is not simply the leader whom everyone follows without question, as one would often see in many of his roles. Not unlike when George Bailey is tested by his dire situation before Clarence drops in (from Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE), we see a very conflicted and tortured role in Frank Towns. Stewart’s portrayal of Towns realistically goes deep into this man’s anguish and desperation as when one is pushed to their extreme limits yet resists for the sake of survival… and not just for the fulfillment of his own continued existence, but for the entire remaining lot of survivors.
Without revealing a humdinger of a spoiler towards the end of the film (I shall refrain for any of you who have not already seen this intriguing film), I will instead assert another notable feature and theme to this classic… aviation. As the first grand daughter of two pilots myself (both my mother’s father and my father’s father were pilots til their last days), I’m a huge fan of aviation. I grew up going to “Fly-Ins” and Air Shows and watching planes being built from scratch in hangars. My fascination with flight started early as my first experience was in a 2-seater ‘single engine’ at the mere age of 6 weeks. Knowing that James Stewart was an avid pilot in real life, simply added more enjoyment for me- as I watched the evolution of this airplane ‘rising from the ashes.’ Sadly, it was the famous real-life stunt pilot Paul Mantz that lost his life in the making of this film.
This post was my contribution to the JAMES STEWART BLOGATHON hosted by the ever talented Rick of the insightful blog, THE CLASSIC FILM and TV CAFE. Be sure to read all the talented bloggers’ entries to this fun blogathon…