Saturday, September 14, 2013

"The Flight of the Phoenix" Soars

Director Robert Aldrich bookends The Flight of the Phoenix with a wild airplane crash and an exhilarating climax. But it’s the drama in-between that makes the film so engrossing:  the friction among the survivors, their audacious plan to reach civilization again, and a brilliant plot twist that comes out of nowhere.

James Stewart in his best 1960s performance.
James Stewart stars as Frank Towns, a veteran pilot flying a second-rate plane for Arabco, a Middle East oil company. The plane’s eleven passengers, mostly oil company employees and soldiers, are oblivious to the fact that the radio doesn't work and the voltage regulators are inoperative. Towns and his navigator friend Lew (Richard Attenborough) ignore these inconveniences—but they can’t ignore the sandstorm nipping at their heels. As swirling sand clogs first one propeller, then the next, Towns has to crash land the plane in the middle of the desert.

Hardy Kruger as Dorfmann.
Although food is not a problem (the cargo included an “unlimited supply of pressed dates”), strict water rationing and the unforgiving desert heat take an immediate toll on the survivors. Thoughts of rescue dwindle with each passing day (Towns knows it’s unlikely, given they were significantly off course). Hope fades further after Captain Harris (Peter Finch) ignores warnings and decides to “march out of there” to an oasis over 100 miles away. At the peak of their despair, Henrich Dorfmann, a quiet, bespeckled German, proposes an incredible plan to save them. It would be unfair to discuss any more of the plot. Keep in mind, though, that there’s an unexpected twist near the end that puts a darkly humorous spin on the proceedings.

Richard Attenborough.
Despite the presence of bigger stars and supporting actor Oscar nominee Ian Bannen, the cast standouts are Hardy Kruger and Richard Attenborough. Kruger creates an unforgettable character in Dorfmann, making him irritating, childish, determined, and innovative. It’s a well-rounded performance matched by Attenborough’s wonderfully understated turn. As the unassuming man who holds the survivors together, Attenborough’s character soothes egos and forges unlikely alliances in the best interests of the group.

Given the film's subject, it may be surprising to learn that Flight of the Phoenix is also noteworthy for introducing a famous love song. Connie Francis can be heard singing "Senza Fine" (written by Gino Paoli) on the radio. While the song, also oddly known as "The Phoenix Love Theme," never charted for Francis, it still became a popular standard. Billy Wilder used it extensively--and to great effect--in his charming 1972 romantic comedy Avanti! with Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills.

Thematically, The Flight of the Phoenix covers a lot of ground, ranging from the friction between officers and noncommissioned officers to the clash between modern technology (represented by Dorfmann) and an old-fashioned practical way of life (Towns). Ultimately, though, Aldrich’s film is an exciting tribute to man’s ingenuity and will to survive. (Note: Avoid the 2004 remake which is a second-rate affair all around.)


  1. It's a movie that never wears out its welcome. With such a wonderful ensemble, you can watch it multiple times focusing on one actor/performance and see things you've never seen before. Ultimately, I always come back to the outstanding Mr. Kruger.

  2. I completely agree, Rick - a great cast and a compelling story (and I usually don't like these kinds of things). Oh, and calling the remake 2nd rate was most kind of you!

  3. Love this thriller,great cast. Never occurred to me to see the remake!
    Unusual role for Dan Duryea .

    Vienna's Classic Hollywood

  4. A favorite of mine, Rick, and a wonderful spin. I agree with FlickChick, you were kind about the remake -- I would have said STINKO! Fun article.

  5. I really like "Flight" and am so glad you shared it with everyone at the Cafe. Well done!

  6. I first saw this movie as a boy in Vienna, Austria, where I lived with my family. It made a life-long-lasting impression. A super cast and many iconic moments. Stewart turns in a fine performance, but the character he portrays is not very likable and that may color judgments of his acting performance. They don't make movies like this anymore and never will again, so "oldies" like this one just get more precious as time passes.