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The original The Flight of the Phoenix, directed by Robert Aldrich, is a harrowing, character-driven survival film bolstered by terrific performances from James Stewart, Richard Attenborough and Hardy Krüger.
A cargo plane carrying an assortment of oil workers and military personnel crashes into the Sahara Desert a good 130 miles off from its original course. With little chance of being discovered before their food and water supplies run out, the only hope for the survivors is to try and build a new, functioning plane from the wreckage of the old one – a grueling, seemingly impossible task.
This Blu-Ray restoration of the 1965 film, as part of Eureka Entertainment’s The Masters of Cinema series is wonderful, featuring crisp colors and high-definition that make the already stunning production quality of the film pop with an appreciable clarity.
The Flight of the Phoenix makes for compelling drama off the back of some well-written characters that have great actors playing them. The movie’s central conflict is between Frank Towns (James Stewart), the pilot, and Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger), a German aeronautical engineer. Both men are crucial to the success of the survivors’ plan, but they can’t stand each other. Towns, a veteran pilot, has been struggling with feeling increasingly irrelevant, a relic of a forgotten era of flying – feelings made all the worse by the desperate situation the men have found themselves in, for which he blames himself. It makes him stubborn and prone to anger and self-pity. Dorfmann, while being the smartest man in the group and the one to come up with the idea of building a new plane, is arrogant and petty. He sees the world as a series of calculations and fundamental principles, doesn’t take kindly to criticism and seems completely out of touch with basic humanity.
The two make for an explosive mix and it falls down to flight navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) to try and mediate between them. While usually calm and reserved, Lew has his limits and will snap at either of them when the situation calls for it. Attenborough easily gives the best performance and shows the most range – a scene of him finally succumbing to the absurdity and despair of their situation, laughing and crying at the same time is the movie’s most memorable dramatic moment.
The rest of the supporting cast is mostly solid, with the notable exception of Sgt. Watson (Ronald Fraser), who seems as if he’s going to be an important character, but ultimately does nothing of worth. As is stands, he could have been completely written out and all the movie would have lost is an unlikable character.
Everyone else has a part to play, even if its a minor one. Ratbags Crow (Ian Bannen), while mean-spirited and grating at times, adds some much needed levity to an otherwise pretty grim scenario. Captain Harris (Peter Finch), a by-the-book military man, suggests the survivors try their luck in the desert, which adds some drama to the early parts and puts the men’s desperation in perspective – they truly exhaust all other options before they decide to try and build a new plane. Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine), who becomes mentally disturbed and a wounded Gabriel (Gabriele Tinti), who is desperate to reunite with his wife, are minor tragic characters that have a few touching moments early on.
As time passes, the men become increasingly haggard looking, with ever-growing beards and flaky, blistered skin. Heat, lack of supplies, mental and physical fatigue – they all take their toll and wear them down, making the struggle for survival feel all the more pertinent and gripping.
The only significant fault I found with the movie apart from the rather unnecessary character of Sgt. Watson was the odd decision to have the credits sequence be made up of a series of freeze frames that take place during the plane crash. It broke up the action of the scene and robbed it of agency. Apart from that, The Flight of the Phoenix holds up exceptionally well as a tense, character-rich story of survival against all odds.
Thank God it was never remade for no good reason.
The Flight of the Phoenix is set for a September 12, 2016 Blu-Ray release.
Isolated Music & Effects track
Vdeo Interview with film historian Sheldon Hall
Original theatrical trailer
A booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Neil Sinyard, and archival imagery