Release Date(s)1965 (March 22, 2022)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Criterion – Spine #1116)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
Robert Aldrich was a director whose films covered many genres, from big-all-star Hollywood studio films to comedies, thrillers, war pictures, and Westerns. His most famous are The Dirty Dozen and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? In The Flight of the Phoenix, Aldrich tells a story of survival—men stranded in the middle of nowhere with little hope of getting out alive.
A large transport plane carrying oil company employees and military men to a location in the Sahara Desert is forced to crash land by a violent sandstorm. The pilot, Capt. Frank Towns (James Stewart), and his right-hand man, Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough), realize that because the storm took them off course, no rescue party is coming for them. One of the passengers, German airplane engineer Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger), says he knows how the men can fashion a workable plane from the disabled plane’s damaged parts.
Towns is highly skeptical of Dorfmann’s plan and unwilling to cede control to him but ultimately concludes that activity and hope will keep up morale. Dorfmann directs the men as they cut, haul and weld parts of the aircraft. Initially dubious, the men nonetheless dedicate themselves to the task. With their supply of water and food diminishing, building Dorfmann’s makeshift plane is the only option left if they are to survive.
Betrayals and resentments occur. The men are permitted only a single cup of water each day but things take a bleak turn when Towns discovers that Dorfmann has been taking extra rations of water. Dorfmann counters truthfully that he has been doing twice as much work as the others.
The men are all, in one way or another, outcasts. Towns is an over-the-hill pilot nostalgic for his early days of flying, and his co-pilot, Moran, is a drunk. Cobb (Ernest Borgnine) is a trucker distraught that he will be forced out of his job because of mental exhaustion. Capt. Harris (Peter Finch) is an officious, stiff-upper-lip, by-the-book British commanding officer to the cowardly Sgt. Watson (Ronald Fraser). And Dorfmann is not the person he claims to be.
Also in the cast are Ian Bannen, Dan Duryea, George Kennedy, Christian Marquand, Gabriele Tinti, Peter Bravos, Alex Montoya and, as a hallucinatory exotic dancing girl in the otherwise all-male cast, Barrie Chase.
With most of the action confined to a single location, director Aldrich keeps the narrative moving by showcasing the arrogance, selfishness, deceitfulness, and cowardice that surface among the men during their ordeal. The main conflict is between Towns and Dorfmann, with Towns representing old-style, top-down command and Dorfmann epitomizing new technological know-how, analytical planning, and almost clinical efficiency.
Aldrich builds suspense as Dorfmann and the men gradually assemble a new plane from the rubble. Can it fly? Will it fly? And will it be sturdy enough to save every survivor? There’s a great deal of dialogue, which allows us to know the characters and view them as more than plot points. Each man is an individual, none perfect, and each deals with his own form of character flaw. Their imperfection humanizes them and they become more than Hollywood stereotypes. Aldrich allows each character enough screen time to make an impression, and would use the same approach with his next film, The Dirty Dozen.
The Flight of the Phoenix is longer than it should be but its excellent casting and smart direction hold our attention. The battle of wills between Towns and Dorfmann as to who is in charge is edgy and charged with tension, anchoring this action/thriller. Aldrich maintains suspense to the very end.
The Flight of the Phoenix was shot by director of photography Joseph Biroc on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Criterion’s new 2K digital restoration was created from the original camera negative. The color palette is dominated by dusky yellows and browns and the dull grey of the wrecked transport plane. The endless sun-drenched sand suggests the dry, unforgiving heat of the desert. The faces of the actors become increasingly sun-damaged as the story unfolds. Complexions are natural and healthy-looking initially, then deteriorate as severe sunburn, blisters and sores, dirty matted hair, and stubble reflect the brutal conditions and the men’s despair. In-flight scenes are shot with studio mock-ups against a projected sky-and-clouds background.
The English mono LPCM soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm magnetic tracks. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is sharp and crystal clear. The delivery varies from actor to actor. Stewart’s Capt. Towns is authoritative and dismissive of others’ suggestions. Kruger’s Dorfmann never raises his voice, is confident in his abilities yet feels obligated to submit to the captain. Borgnine plays his character’s mental instability with wide-eyed madness. Attenborough slurs his dialogue appropriately when Moran is on the booze. Finch’s Capt. Harris issues commands to his sergeant as if their predicament is no reason to break down the military hierarchy. Sound effects of the plane motors, gun shots, and heavy sections of the aircraft being moved into place add realism. Frank DeVol’s score is used to good effect in dramatic scenes, particularly toward the end of the film, when the plane is tested to see if it will fly.
Bonus material on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release includes the following:
- Walter Hill and Alain Silver (19:17)
- James Maitland Stewart: The Actor and the Bomber Pilot (18:08)
- Theatrical Trailer (3:09)
Walter Hill and Alain Silver – In this 2021 conversation, filmmaker Walter Hill and Robert Aldrich biographer Alain Silver share their appreciation for Aldrich and The Flight of the Phoenix. Aldrich made films for studios, often with big stars, but was known as “a maverick personality.” He initially worked at the fringes of the studio system, and found there were ways outside the system to get a film made. He was always interested in developing his own material, which was unusual in the 1950s. He was loyal to his crew. His cinematographer, editor, and music composer each did more than ten films with Aldrich. He also worked several times with Ernest Borgnine, Dan Duryea, Ian Bannen, and Peter Finch. Hill and Silver note that Phoenix is Aldrich’s most easily approachable film. He bought the rights to the novel and focused on the conflicts among the characters to keep the film fresh. The film cost between $4 million and $5 million. It didn’t do well at the box office. This was particularly disturbing to Aldrich because he made no compromises, there were no conflicts on the set, the picture came in on schedule, and he had the cast that he wanted. Though Aldrich’s film output is uneven, he made an “enormous contribution to American culture.”
James Maitland Stewart: The Actor and the Bomber Pilot – In this 2021 conversation, James Stewart biographer Donald Dewey reflects on Stewart’s service in the US Air Force and how it colored his choices as an actor. Stewart had his own independent film company. Any films involving flying were brought to his attention. He felt comfortable in these roles. In 1930s Hollywood, a number of stars were pilots, among them Robert Taylor, Olivia de Havilland, Robert Cummings, and Joan Fontaine. Recognizing his box office value, Louis B. Mayer tried to convince Stewart not to enlist as a pilot during World War II but he eventually did, was promoted to Lt. Colonel, and commanded a squadron of 1,000 planes on a bombing mission. By war’s end, he had logged 1,800 hours in the air. His first film after the war was It’s a Wonderful Life. He later did a series of films with Anthony Mann, which reflected a bitterness on Stewart’s part. He didn’t like talking about the war, and felt that Hollywood war movies were far removed from reality.
Theatrical Trailer – In addition to scenes from the feature, the off-screen narrator comments on “superb performances from a cast of brilliant stars from around the world.”
Included in the package is an accordion-style booklet containing the essay Fight or Flight by Gina Telaroli, a cast and credits list, and details about the film’s restoration. Also included is a small, three-piece cardboard model of the Phoenix, the plane constructed from the damaged transport plane, which is presented on a punch-out card.
Extras from the Masters of Cinema UK import released in 2016 that are not included here include an isolated music and effects track, a video interview with film historian Sheldon Hall, and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Neil Sinyard.
The Flight of the Phoenix features characters that come from diverse backgrounds and cultures that must learn to work together to have any hope of escaping the desert before their water runs out. It’s a race against time, with personalities in conflict. Though the film could have benefited from some judicious editing, it draws us in as these men must make life or death decisions.
- Dennis Seuling