Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Movie Review: The Flight Of The Phoenix (1965)

A survival adventure, The Flight Of The Phoenix explores tense dynamics among a group of men stranded in the unforgiving desert.

In North Africa, jaded veteran pilot Frank Towns (James Stewart) and his hard drinking navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) are in command of a cargo flight to Benghazi, flying an aging twin-engine Fairchild C-82 Packet airplane. A disparate group of men from various backgrounds are hitching a ride, including British military men Captain Harris (Peter Finch) and Sergeant Watson (Ronald Fraser); French Doctor Renaud (Christian Marquand); German scientist Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger); and several oil field workers including the dimwitted Cobb (Ernest Borgnine).

During the flight Towns encounters a severe sandstorm, first knocking the plane off course then stalling both engines and forcing a hard landing in the desert. The men have plenty of dried dates for food but only enough water for about 10 to 15 days. With no signs of a forthcoming rescue Harris and one other survivor embark on a perilous march through the desert, while Heinrich reveals he is an airplane designer and develops an audacious plan to build a flying plane out of the wreckage.

An adaptation of the 1964 Elleston Trevor novel written for the screen by Lukas Heller and directed by Robert Aldrich, The Flight Of The Phoenix is an epic story of stress, hope and interpersonal dependencies under desperate circumstances. In the classic tradition of survival stories, the film is most interested in exploring emergent conduct and mental pressure when strangers with contrasting perspectives are trapped together for a prolonged period.

Themes of discipline, leadership and the transference of behavioral expectations from routine to emergency contexts permeate through the film. Heller's script delves into the complexities of authority under stress through the hierarchical relationship between Captain Harris and Sergeant Watson. Here codes of discipline and obedience built for war buckle under the strain of bleak prospects unrelated to hostile action. Suddenly deception and cowardice are in play, all in the name of eking out a survival advantage.

More fundamental to the group's prospects is the tension between Captain Towns and Heinrich Dorfmann. The normative leadership of the only man who can fly a plane is challenged once his aircraft is a crumpled wreck in the desert. Heinrich's well-calculated idea to build a new plane may sound insane, but it's the only available plan, and only he can lead it. Towns has already managed to steer his career in a downward spiral towards flying for a fifth-rate cargo operation in the desert with a drunk as his navigator, and yielding authority to a German nerd is not something he can readily accept. The essential role of the moderator, fulfilled by the now forcibly sober Moran, is accentuated.

The performances from James Stewart, Richard Attenborough and particularly Hardy Krüger are sturdy and appropriately layered, helping the film overcome its mammoth 142 minutes of running time. Some episodes serve to unnecessarily prolong the action while thinning the herd, but Aldrich overall keeps his focus on the characters. The resultant drama is engrossing despite most events being confined to a single location in and right around the plane's wreckage.

All men eventually wilt but a few also rise to the challenge. The Flight Of The Phoenix salutes the human ability to adapt and survive against overwhelming adversity.

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