The Flight Of The Phoenix


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Flight Of The Phoenix
"It's not the action or the tension that makes this film important; it's its position at a point of historic and cinematic flux."

14 men. One rickety plane. The pilot's too old, somebody says. There are plenty of problems. The barrels at the back of the plane are not well tethered. The electrics are dodgy. And then there's the approaching sandstorm.

They say the best test of a pilot is how well they can land, and Towns (James Stewart) at least gets most of the men down intact - the plane rather less so. Although they know their position and the surrounding terrain, the idea of walking to get help is complicated by the harshness of the hot desert landscape, the absence of landmarks and the awareness that a tiny deviation from their true course would mean death. They're lucky enough to have a good supply of food and enough water to last for a few weeks, but it's not clear that there will be any kind of search party, and the vastness of the region would make them difficult to spot. Only one potential alternative presents itself, in the form of a young German (Hardy Krüger) who knows a few things about aircraft design. But with the British and American men still suspicious of Germans after the war, and tempers already under strain, is there any prospect of them working together for long enough to save themselves?

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Pitting its heroes against the desert and against a series of technological challenges (mostly explained in a way that's accessible without seeming unnatural), this is a film that harks back to the boy's own adventure yarns beloved of Thirties cinema, but it's also strikingly modern in outlook. The sometimes slow pace (again, quite realistic) allows for plenty of character development and this is well balanced across the capable ensemble cast. Whilst Stewart is technically the hero, his guilt about the crash complicates his character; this being one of his later roles, there's also some self-deprecating humour reminiscent of that attending his performance in Rope 17 years earlier. He's well matched by Krüger, who effectively conjures up the frustrations of a man who knows he is the smartest person present but struggles to win respect, not least because he hasn't been blessed with a comparable amount of social skill. Between them, Richard Attenborough delivers a subtler performance as a less talented man with a better understanding of people - the man on whom survival probably depends, but a man who is growing noticeably weaker in the heat.

Adventure tales like this may hold less interest for a modern audience which expects more in the way of chases and explosions, but Aldrich's film isn't short on tension. In places his direction is charmingly over-dramatic - the opening credits sequence, for one - but he also succeeds in bringing home the desperation of the men's situation and the dangers of the anger growing among them. There are other perils in the desert; there's also a legacy of romantic cinematic depictions of it which are referenced here in a frankly silly sequence with a dancing woman which seems to exist purely to get some scantily clad breasts on the poster. A pet monkey (whose name has not survived the years) is well used as an early warning system, its sharper senses warning the viewer and sometimes the men or impending events.

As you might expect, there's some stunt flying in the film, and famous stuntman Paul Mantz was killed performing one sequence (not used in the eventual cut). He's credited as having given his life for the film. Although the stunts are modest by today's standards, this brings home the risks involved and the commitment how to the film by all involved.

In the end, though, it's not the action or the tension that makes this film important; it's its position at a point of historic and cinematic flux, when the ways of thinking that belonged to the old half-century were dying, a new era opening up. Throughout the film, Towns is positioned - not unsympathetically - as emblematic of a dying way of life, whilst the young German represents the new: an age of technology, where smart thinking prevails over hard work and where there is no room for the old conflicts. The men who at first feel an obligation to cling to their partisan resentments begin to mutter, in this isolated space outside of the world they have known, about how they don't want to fight other people's wars anymore. Class hierarchies break down but, it is implied, meritocracy might not be any kinder. There's a prescience about the way all this is drawn together that has helped the film to stand the test of time. Now available for home viewing, it's ready to come face to face with that brave new world.

Reviewed on: 08 Sep 2016
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A group of men are stranded in the desert after their plane gets caught in a sandstorm.
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Director: Robert Aldrich

Writer: Lukas Heller, based on the book by Trevor Dudley Smith

Starring: James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Hardy Krüger, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Ronald Fraser, Christian Marquand

Year: 1965

Runtime: 142 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


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