A really good plane crash movie is Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) starring James Stewart as Frank Towns, a grizzled old veteran pilot from the days when the pleasure of flying could be found in “just getting there.” But, he’s not quite the hotshot pilot of his youth now that he’s flying a rickety old twin engine Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo plane for an oil company insensitively named Arabco (pronounced ah-RAB-coh), shuttling supplies and oil workers across the Sahara desert. As a navigator, Towns’ flying partner Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough), isn’t too bad. However, he spent a little too much time sipping from the bottle to notice the radio equipment was faulty.
The film opens as the flying veterans are transporting several oil workers, an oil company accountant, two British military men, a doctor, his patient, and a rather peevish German engineer to Benghazi. The group are ably played by several great character actors including George Kennedy, Ian Bannen (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role), Peter Finch, Dan Duryea, and Ernest Borgnine. But it’s Hardy Kruger who steals the show as he plays the German engineer, Heinrich Dorfmann, who turns out to be the man with the plan.
A sandstorm pushes the plane well off course and forces Towns to make a crash landing as the blowing sand clogs the engines. Two of the passengers are killed in the crash, while a third is seriously injured. The rest face the hostile desert conditions with little water and even less hope of rescue.
Dorfmann has an idea.
Although the plane is totaled, there is enough left intact and plenty of tools and equipment that a new plane could be constructed from the remains. Towns dismisses the idea initially, but the doctor tells him having the men work to build the new plane would give them hope. A baseless hope perhaps, but it would be better than the lot of them just watching each other die. So, the project begins.
The film follows the men as they labor and lose hope and find resolve again to attempt to escape the desert. There are clashes between the men as the tensions rise and the water runs low, but most contentious of all of the clashes is the constant head butting done between the pilot and the engineer. Towns is certain it won’t fly and is convinced he will cause more deaths if he tries to get the contraption off the ground. Dorfmann seems to be more interested in just seeing it made. Lew keeps finding himself having to act as a go-between to try to keep the two headstrong men on the task of getting back to civilization.
There’s a scene of very satisfying retribution meted out by the old pilot involving the insubordinate British sergeant after a particularly tragic event. The moment takes advantage of Stewart’s mastery of portraying righteous rage. And then there’s the revelation as to the kind of engineer Dorfmann is that brings Lew close to the edge of mental collapse. Attenborough plays the moment perfectly.
In 2004, a remake was made that felt it necessary to bring in shoot outs and chase scenes, not realizing the tension, the action, and the story were the men and their desperate attempt to complete the “Phoenix” before their water, their strength, their sanity, and, ultimately, their lives ran out.
The film could use a slight trim as it comes in at 142 minutes, but it holds your attention as you root for these guys to get to safety. And watching Stewart and Kruger spar with each other is very entertaining.
“Get the popcorn ready, kids, we got us a good movie to watch!”
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