|The Flight of the Phoenix
1965 - unrated - 142 Mins.
|Director: Robert Aldrich
|Producer: Robert Aldrich
|Written By: Lukas Heller
|Starring: James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Kruger and Ernest Borgnine
|Review by: Bill King
"The Flight of the Phoenix" serves as an interesting precursor to the disaster movie craze of the 1970s for several reasons. Though it doesn't really qualify as a disaster movie (it's more of an adventure), it contains some of the key plot points that pointed the way to the genre that would come to full maturation in the '70s ("The Towering Inferno") after a period of infancy in the '50s ("When Worlds Collide").
A group of men are stranded in a desert due to a wrecked airplane; civilization is over a hundred miles away. They have limited water and virtually no hope for rescue. The men grow weary as the days go by, especially when they realize that as they were thrown off course, a search party won't be coming to their rescue anytime soon. By the film's third act, several characters will be dead, leaving fewer people alive to complete the plan for escape.
There is also the presence of George Kennedy as one of the survivors. He would go on to portray Joe Patroni in the four "Airport" movies in the next decade, as well as a priest on a hijacked plane in "The Delta Force." Prior disaster movies - such as "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" and the aforementioned "When Worlds Collide" - didn't use established movie stars. The '70s pictures used Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and Burt Lancaster, among others. "The Flight of the Phoenix" featured James Stewart in the role of the pilot of that ill-fated plane. Stewart's character is the voice of reason as some survivors wait for rescue while others try to venture off into the desert in search of help.
Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger) knows early on that the chances for help is remote, so he comes up with a plan so outlandish that few take him seriously at first. As an airplane designer, he believes that a new airplane can be constructed from their wrecked one. With only four or five days of water left - along with some antifreeze for backup - he suggests they get to work right away using one of the working engines and the two wings to create a means to fly out of the desert. Captain Frank Towns (Stewart) thinks the idea is ludicrous, but with little else to do, he reluctantly agrees to let the survivors strip the plane. Co-pilot Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) figures that even if the plane doesn't work, then at least the men will have something to give them hope.
Due to the scorching temperatures, they do most of the work at night, but the climate isn't the biggest of their worries. Bandits camp out just over the nearest sand dune, and they're more likely to loot the plane and kill the survivors rather than offer assistance. Sandstorms are a constant worry, as are fatigue and a depleting water supply, thanks mainly to one person's inability to restrict himself to his own share.
There are a few sensible people in the group, such as army captain Harris (Peter Finch), who tries to use his leadership experience to help the men. However, the insubordinate Sgt. Watson (Ronald Fraser) gets tired of taking risks. Early on, when the captain decides to search for civilization, the sergeant fakes an injury. Later, after the captain returns, he orders the sergeant to come with him to talk to the bandits, in case they might be willing to help. Sgt. Watson disobeys the order.
Though not a standout film in any way, "The Flight of the Phoenix" provides for escapist entertainment and does a reasonably good job of executing its routine script. There is a good setup and a satisfying payoff, and in between the survival tale becomes a frantic race against the clock as the men wish against all odds that their stitched-up plane will actually fly. Dubbed the Phoenix, the new plane figures in the movie's climax, which is the scene in which we learn how the plane is supposed to get off the ground and find out whether it does or doesn't. We know from legend that the phoenix emerged from its ashes and flew once again, so "The Flight of the Phoenix" gives us hope right away by virtue of its title.