The Flight Of The Phoenix (1965)

ROBERT ALDRICH

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5

USA, 1965. . Screenplay by , based on the novel by . Cinematography by . Produced by Robert Aldrich. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

An American oil company’s airplane flies across the Sahara Desert headed for Benghazi, at its helm a former war pilot () and beside him a struggling alcoholic co-pilot (); among the passengers are a group of oil company employees, British soldiers, a German plane designer, and a French doctor. Their flight should be a routine transportation, but a series of problems turn things deadly before the opening credits even show up on screen: the plane flies off course, a sandstorm takes out an engine and, well, is on board.

Crashlanding in the desert with instant fatalities, the surviving men find themselves grabbing shade under the wing of the downed plane and deciding on water rations before realizing that there is no rescue likely to come get them soon. Army captain sets out with two men to traipse across the desert in search of help despite Stewart’s warning not to, while bespectacled genius plane designer comes up with a plan so insane that it simply must be tried: he insists that they if they attach one of the plane’s wings to the good remaining engine and build a makeshift undercarriage for it, they could achieve flight enough to get back to civilization, with Stewart at the cockpit and the other men holding on to the plane with their bare hands.

Stewart gets into a battle of wills with this booksmart crackpot and their tension holds the centre of the film in a firm, terrifying grip as the rest of the men dance around the idea that the scheme could possibly work. They have nothing to lose and even if it doesn’t turn out well, giving them all something to work towards will help improve morale as they await the inevitable. Going against them, however, are the harsh conditions of the desert, which play havoc with their skin (and the makeup effects are quite impressive), as well as their quickly dwindling resources. They only have enough water for each man to drink a little bit every day for a limited time, and the only food in plentiful supply is pitted dates, so there’s no way of knowing if they can keep up their strength enough to accomplish the gargantuan task at hand.

It would be rude to spoil the outcome of this adventure, but it would be foolish of you not to know why a Hollywood studio chose to turn Elleston Trevor’s somewhat fact-based novel into a movie unless it was to deliver its audience a good time, and a good time it definitely is. Stewart has the opportunity to play his harsher side without any awshucks rationalizing, and he is surrounded by a magnificent cast who all sparkle, including , who earned an Academy Award nomination for his scene-stealing sarcasm as the Scottish grunt whose good-natured humour about finding himself wasting away in the desert gradually takes on the edge of madness, Attenborough in fine form as a man doing his best to stay professional and sane while clearly conflicted emotionally, Borgnine making the most of a small part as a man who was already being sent home for emotional exhaustion before this traumatic experience, solid as the doctor, and effective as the sniveling upstart who easily puts his own selfish desire over any sense of duty (every survival drama needs at least one).

The real star of the show, however, is director Robert Aldrich who creates an epic adventure enriched by bright, gorgeous images of endless sand and sun (filmed in Arizona and California) that never overwhelm the desperation of the human drama happening against this backdrop. It’s one of his finest-wrought films but, for some unfortunate reason, it didn’t connect with audiences at the time and deserves to be rediscovered, the opportunity to work with a bigger budget after the surprise success of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane is not one that he wastes and he manages to make one of the few big action movies of the decade that has as much brainpower and fine-tuned visual style as it does excitement and noise.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Ian Bannen); Best Film Editing

Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Picture-Drama; Best Supporting Actor (Hardy Kruger); Most Promising Newcomer-Male (Ian Bannen)

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