Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Lukas Heller
Based on a Novel by: Trevor Dudley Smith
Starring: James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Hardy Krüger, Peter Finch, Ronald Fraser, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, George Kennedy, Dan Duryea
Running Time: 144 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Watching Robert Aldrich's 1965 film The Flight of the Phoenix for the first time last night presented me with a fairly unusual situation where I'd seen a remake prior to the original. I saw the 2004 Flight of the Phoenix (one of the changes was to drop the 'the') a few years ago and quite enjoyed it, but didn't think it was anything special (incidentally, the making of documentary on the UK DVD made more of an impact, as I felt it was one of the best I'd seen for a modern release). This underwhelming response didn't stop me from showing interest in watching the original though. On top of the fantastic cast, which I'll come to later, having Robert Aldrich in the director's chair appealed to me. I've not seen many of his films, but those I have, particularly Kiss Me Deadly and The Dirty Dozen, are very much in line with my tastes – i.e. thrilling entertainment with a dark edge. The Flight of the Phoenix wasn't one of his most commercial successes, but it has garnered a fair amount of respect and acclaim over the years, so it was a title of his I had on my radar and I was keen to get my hands on a screener when my friends at Eureka offered me one.
The Flight of the Phoenix sets things up very efficiently, with a group of oil men and British soldiers sharing a flight across the Sahara desert, which soon comes into trouble (stylishly during the credits) as it hits a sandstorm and crash lands in the sand. Most of the passengers and crew make it through the crash alive, with only two deaths and one severe injury, but the survivors are left stranded in the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Sahara, with little chance of rescue due to being 130 miles off their due course. Nevertheless, the group try to stay alive as long as possible and wait for a plane to pass by. A young German passenger, Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger), has another suggestion though. He's an aircraft designer and claims that another plane can be constructed from the remains of the aircraft that dropped them there. This is dismissed as madness at first, but the cold and calculated Dorfmann eventually convinces the desperate crew and they get to work, using what little strength and resources they have, to build 'The Phoenix' and fly back to civilization.
Adding further difficulties to the group's survival are the strained relationships between the men (there are no women in this film, other than a brief mirage), yet these provide the film's greatest strength. It may sound and be marketed like an exciting action thriller, but the only big set pieces occur at the start and end of the film. It's really a character-led drama in a disaster movie shell. Luckily the characters are wonderfully drawn. All are deeply flawed, from James Stewart's pilot Frank Towns, who is racked with guilt over the accident, to Dorfmann, whose assessments of matters arising are regularly correct (much to the annoyance of the stubborn Towns) but cold and heartless. Even the one voice of reason in the film, Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough), has his problems, being an alcoholic. The character I found most interesting though was Sergeant Watson (Ronald Fraser). Forced into the army from an early age, he decides enough is enough during their ordeal in the desert and disobeys his Captain's orders on three occasions, feigning injury at one point and outright refusing another order. This standing up against authority isn't just cowardice though, common sense also plays a factor, so he doesn't feel weak or expendable. This clashing of such troubled individuals makes for gripping and fiery viewing, despite the considerably lengthy running time and relative lack of action.
Aiding the success of the character dynamics is an exceptional cast. The two big name leads, Stewart and Attenborough, are as wonderful as ever, with the former channeling his more edgy roles in his work with Alfred Hitchock and Anthony Mann. Some of their scenes alone together, particularly towards the end of the film, are positively electrifying. Krüger does a great job too, crafting a character that's hard to like but hard not to agree with for the most part. Sharing the screen with these three are a host of Hollywood's finest character actors at the time, such as Ernest Borgnine, Peter Finch, George Kennedy, Dan Duryea and Ian Bannen, who got Oscar nominated for his role here as the insult-spewing Crow. Some have less to do than others, but all have their key roles to play and make the characters their own.
Aldrich's direction isn't too flashy, but he has a strong control over proceedings. It may be long, but, other than the mirage sequence I mentioned earlier, which feels a bit tacked on to add some sex to the tough, manly picture, there doesn't feel to be any added fluff. Arguments and discussions are allowed to play out as required, but there are also several well constructed scenes of tension. Aided by some fantastic Oscar nominated editing, Aldrich draws thrills from not only the initial crash and finale, but from sequences when wings are transferred between planes or when some Arabs are spotted and the survivors debate what to do.
It's Hollywood filmmaking at its finest, delivering a solid production that's hard to find flaw with and has a rough, unheroic edge to its characters that keeps them believable and interesting to watch. It may not be the most fast paced of films, but it remains utterly gripping and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. It's certainly more memorable than the remake.
The Flight of the Phoenix is out on 12th September on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture quality is fantastic, with detail and colour strong yet natural. The audio is great too.
There aren't a huge number of special features, but a 25 minute video interview with film historian Sheldon Hall is very good and you get an optional music & FX track if that sort of thing floats your boat.
As with all Masters of Cinema releases, you get a booklet in with the package too though, which makes for recommended reading as always and is a decent stand-in for another featurette.