US Release Date: 12-15-1965
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
- James Stewart, as
- Frank Towns
- Richard Attenborough, as
- Lew Moran
- Peter Finch, as
- Captain Harris
- Hardy Kruger, as
- Heinrich Dorfmann
- Ernest Borgnine, as
- Trucker Cobb
- Ian Bannen, as
- Ronald Fraser, as
- Sergeant Watson
- Christian Marquand, as
- Dr. Renaud
- Dan Duryea, as
- George Kennedy, as
- Gabriele Tinti, as
- Alex Montoya, as
- Peter Bravos, as
- William Aldrich, as
- Barrie Chase as
James Stewart and Hardy Kruger in The Flight of the Phoenix
Having seen the horrendous remake, I wondered how much better the original film was. The 2004 version, envisioned by one of the worst directors ever, Tom Moore, is so bad that I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that the original would be better.
Jimmy Stewart stars as Frank, a past his prime pilot flying some oil workers, and a couple of soldiers over the Sahara desert to Benghazi. Within minutes, a sandstorm takes out one of the plane's engines, forcing Frank to crash land the plane in the desert. Two of the men are killed on impact and another mortally wounded. They bury the dead, ration the water and survive on their cargo supply of dates.
Frank takes the blame for the crash. The guilt he carries makes him a bitter, grumpy old man. He is kept sane by his friend Lew, who plays the voice of reason. After several days in the desert, two options arise. The first is a British officer deciding to take a couple of men and make a walk for it, against Frank's and Lew's advice. The second option is presented by Dorfmann, who excitedly suggests that they build a new plane out of the wreckage of the one they have. Frank rudely dismisses him, "Are you trying to be funny?" This creates a rift between what proves to be the two most important people in the group. Later in the film, Dorfmann says to Frank, "Mr. Towns, you behave as if stupidity were a virtue. Why is that?"
Stewart gives a memorable performance. The scene where he yells at Attenborough comes out of nowhere and reminds us of what a great actor he truly was. This role was a bit of a departure from his eternal good guy image. Although under stressful circumstances, Stewart plays the kind of ornery old man that his own grandchildren would refuse to visit.
Frank is old school, while the arrogant Dorfmann, represents the future. Dorfmann is the outsider of the group, keeping mostly to himself. It is the idea of the two different personalities, knowledge and experiences learning to work together and appreciate what each brings to the table that is the core of the film. Later, Frank observes of Dorfmann, "The little man with the slide rule and computers are going to inherit the Earth."
Another stand out performance is by Ernest Borgnine, who plays a man of limited mental capacity. His Cobb is a middle aged man who has the personality of a child. He gets energetically excited when he wants to do something and pouts when he is not allowed to do it. The part is not at all played for laughs and Borgnine earns our sympathy quite easily.
The Flight of the Phoenix is an engrossing adventure/survival tale. The men must deal with the elements, some Arabs and most importantly, each other. It is witnessing their interactions and decisions that makes this film worth while. There are scenes of tension, death and quite a bit of blood for 1965. In one scene a man imagines a belly dancer, the only female in the entire film, doing sexually suggestive moves. Director Robert Aldrich wanted the dancer to be topless, but she refused.
William Aldrich, the director's son, has a small acting role here and was the producer of the 2004 remake. I am no more impressed by his acting than I am his producing. When a film is this good, a remake is unnecessary.
The Flight of the Phoenix
I was with my brother when we saw the atrocious 2004 version, one of the worst remakes in the history of Hollywood. Based on the novel of the same name by Elleston Trevor, this Robert Aldrich directed original screen version of The Flight of the Phoenix soars. It combines old fashioned adventure with compelling human interaction. The result is one hell of an entertainment.
As Eric mentioned, the action starts almost immediately. It is only after the crash landing that we begin to learn about these men. We are meeting them in crisis mode and can only guess at who they must have been in the outside world. Initially they bicker and bond as they loll about in the shade of one of the plane's wings. Eventually they begin work on building a new plane to rise from the ashes of the old one. It's an idea as desperate as it is audacious. Aldrich delivers an extremely taut climax that leads to an entirely satisfying conclusion.
Hardy Krüger plays the most interesting man in the film. He was one of the first German actors to play a hero in an American film post WWII. His character Dorfmann morphs from a mysterious -and possibly sinister- figure to the group's savior. Although it is mostly tacit, there is an underlying sense of anti-German sentiment amongst the other survivors. Stewart, as Towns, refers to Dorfmann as a Kraut in one scene. Remember this was just 20 years after the war, and watching your friends and comrades die is a difficult thing to forget.
Wisely though, the scrip doesn't turn Dorfmann into a saint. He is arrogant and callous, but also brilliant. When his ego gets bruised he pouts and refuses to work on the plane. Richard Attenborough, as Moran, turns Dorfmann's own words against him, “You told Towns he was behaving as if stupidity was a virtue. If he's making it into a virtue, you're making it into a bloody science!”
James Stewart was 57 at the time and in his waning days as an above the title star. He was still lean and wiry with those piercing light blue eyes. His stuttering drawl becoming more pronounced over the years and his characters less likable. His Towns is every bit as cantankerous as Eric said.
The supporting cast includes Peter Finch, George Kennedy and Dan Duryea. Finch's Capt. Harris is noble and therefore suffers the most, while Kennedy gets only a handful of lines. Duryea's character is the one who gives the rebuilt plane its name. He paints The Phoenix on its side, a stroke of whimsy in a dire situation.
Airplane aficionados appreciate this movie on a more technical level. They can tell you exactly what types of aircraft were used in every scene. They are a big reason why The Flight of the Phoenix has developed a cult following over the years. The best scene in the entire movie is the big reveal about Dorfmann's true occupation. It concerns the making of airplanes and it provides a big laugh in the middle of this otherwise very tense movie.
Photos © Copyright Associates & Aldrich Company, The (1965)