Director Robert Aldrich bookends his 1965 adventure story 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 stars as Frank Towns, a veteran pilot flying a second-rate plane for Arabco, a Middle East oil company. The plane’s 11 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.
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 (Hardy Kruger), 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.
Despite the presence of bigger stars and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Ian Bannen (who would lose out to Martin Balsam for A Thousand Clowns), the cast standouts are Kruger and 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.)
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!