Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

I was very confused every time I looked at the cover of this particular DVD, as it lists the two stars–James Stewart and Richard Attenborough–but the image on the front I could never match to these names. Stewart? Yeah, absolutely. But I thought, “Gee, that’s either an awfully young looking Attenborough or something weird is going on.”

It turns out it is not, in fact, Attenborough on the cover, but Hardy Krüger. Weird, but makes more sense if you see the film. This was based on a novel from the previous year and most recently was remade in 2004, but I know nothing of either of those incarnations, and this was the first time I saw this one, so it was a completely fresh look for me.

Captain Frank Towns (Jimmy!) is piloting a plane over the Sahara desert, with navigator Lew Moran ([now Baron] Richard Attenborough), carrying a mish mash of passengers, including some British soldiers, a doctor and his (mental) patient, oil workers, and a German engineer visiting his brother. Encountering a sandstorm, Towns decides to try and get above it, especially upon finding another storm following them preventing a turn into an alternate landing location. The sand makes short work of the engines, one at a time, forcing the plane down in the middle of the desert. Naturally a mass of dunes is not the best place to land, and does not make for a new runway–nevermind the wonderful things it does to the landing gear.

Now we begin the inevitable that comes from any plane crash film–some characters maintain they should wait for the “obvious” rescue party, some insist on plotting and scheming and others insist on defying the human body and searching for further civilization. However, the important thing here is that we have an all around strong cast, especially considering it is headed by those two fine actors (Stewart and Attenborough), but the rest are no slouches either. Personalities and philosophies start to appear quickly, admittedly fairly simplistic in terms of overall demeanour, but well-written and acted enough that it feels more like a rounding that has been honed to a point to make the characters seperate enough from each other.

Peter Finch is Captain Harris, but a Captain here only in a military sense, though what a military sense it is, with Sergeant Watson (Ronald Fraser) playing a reluctant soldier under his command. Finch takes a very orderly and, well, militaristic sort of approach to the situation, insisting they should march from the wreckage to the next town over (I was reminded a bit of Alec Guinness’ Col. Nicholson from Bridge on the River Kwai, but thankfully a little more aware of the world around him, and a bit softer and more human in general), which is many miles and difficult to get to, between the heat and lack of direction if one uses the cover of night for travel. Going with him is Carlos (Alex Montoya), a Mexican oil worker carrying a monkey to bring to his son, leaving us to ponder their fate for some time through the film.

Heinrich Dorfmann (Krüger) quietly examines and picks through the wreckage, making notes and flipping through a catalog he has with him. He makes a strange suggestion to Towns and Moran, saying he can design a working plane from the remaining elements of the original, which Towns finds patently ridiculous and shoots down, angrily suggesting it is no time for jokes. Dorfmann later reveals that he designs airplanes for a living, and so Moran, a bit more optimistic than Towns, begins to believe that perhaps there is something to Dorfmann’s claims after all, convincing Towns and the others they should give it a shot.

Dr. Renaud (Christian Marquand) is a Frenchman who has some other passing talents that may be of use to the group, but is here primarily to keep watch over the mentally fatigued Trucker Cobb (a strangely goofy and energetic Ernest Borgnine). Rounding out the majority of the cast is Ian Bannen as “Ratbags” Crow and George Kennedy (who has jumped between dramas like this and comedies like The Naked Gun, but often even in dramas is a bit of a goof–such as the character Dragline in Cool Hand Luke) as Bellamy. This group is primarily a source of manpower and humour more than anything else, Cobb creating both some uncomfortable humour (the man clearly suffers at LEAST mental fatigue) and some tension, while Bellamy is almost purely manpower (and I’m sorry, I have to thump him on the ear for that awful, awkward “pound my fist against my thigh in resigned grief” he does not once, but TWICE, when they find someone dead…), and “Ratbags” is just a source of irritation. My compliments to Bannen, as boy, I wanted to hit Crow a number of times, just to get him to shut up and stop saying nasty things to everyone (thankfully for their mental health, most characters seem to ignore him).

The basis of the film’s drama and tension centers primarily around the interaction between the three leads–Towns is a grumpy, passionate, pessimistic veteran pilot who cannot help but butt heads with Dorfmann, the quiet, precise and pragmatic designer, who often sees things in purely factual terms (which I think we’re supposed to find cold, but being somewhat of that mentality myself, I found myself often–but not always–sympathizing with him, as much as I love Jimmy), while Moran tries to tie the two together, never quite earning the attention of Dorfmann, and his attempts to say anything positive about Dorfmann leading him to conflict with the bull-headed Towns.

This is one of four Robert Aldrich movies I own, but only the second I’ve watched. He has a strange affinity for movies with what even I consider fairly long running times (three of the four run at or near two and a half hours, including this one)–strange especially in “action” or “adventure” movies, in some ways (though more recently this has been popular, certainly) but seems to fill them out correctly. I didn’t feel at all that it was dragging on and on, though the fantastic performances helped quite a bit on that front.

I really can’t imagine Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson and Giovanni Ribisi doing justice to this film. I like Ribisi, but Quaid is in my group of ultra-square, bland vanilla lead men. I doubt even Hugh Laurie could pull it up to snuff (he is also in the remake, I didn’t just pull that out of nowhere, for the record) when compared to this one–especially because it made me think, all along, of the way that action scenes are filmed now. Here not everything is shown. Not a sudden, tightly edited, perfectly played out shot of that one belt snapping, or that one short taking out the power systems or what have you, but a focus on the characters and enough of a “hint” about what’s going on that you don’t need to see those things and focus on, hey, wow, that was an amazing shot of the landing gear getting stuck. It seems like unnecessary details are being added to these things (as well as unnecessary CGI, but that’s better reserved for discussions, in my opinion, of more organic effects being replaced with it).

End result? A very tense film, especially for two hours and twenty minutes, with a stellar cast, a well-written plot and even well-written dialogue.

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