The Flight of the Phoenix
Director: Robert Aldrich / Screenplay: Lukas Heller (from novel by Elleston Trevor) / Editing: Michael Luciano / Score: Frank De Vol
Cast: James Stewart / Richard Attenborough / Peter Finch / Hardy Krüger / Ernest Borgnine / Ian Bannen / Ronald Fraser / Christian Marquand / George Kennedy
Fight or Flight…
Before its transition to film, The Flight of the Phoenix was a successful adventure novel, written by British author Elleston Trevor (the pseudonym of Trevor Dudley Smith). Its premise was simple enough: a cargo plane crashes in the Sahara. Out of touch with any would-be rescuers, its crew and (dwindling) roster of (talented) passengers, cobble a new aircraft together out of of the wreckage and fly it back to civilisation.
Think it too far-fetched to ever work? Some years ago, a Frenchman was stranded in the desert, having wrecked his 2CV, yet he managed to turn it into a life-saving motorcycle… Now that’s the kind of challenge I want to see on a management bonding retreat: far more constructive than building a bridge out of old pallets, to span a ‘chasm’ filled with rubber balls, am I right?
Anyhow, the rights were snapped-up by the maverick producer / director Robert Aldrich, who made a career out of answering to no-one, with a succession of pictures made by his own outfit: ‘The Associates & Aldrich Company’: a quirky name for an idiosyncratic Hollywood player. Aldrich ran the company like a mini-studio, optioning, developing and financing productions with little (visible) support. A risky business model to be sure, but one that ensured a healthy return when a movie became a hit.
Luckily for Aldrich, he had a rare talent for spotting the potential in many of his films, putting together attractive packages that a bigger studio might release & support, e.g. Twentieth Century Fox, in this case. Other notable Aldrich successes you might’ve heard of? Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955) to name but a few.
Phoenix was actually one of the rare misfires in Aldrich’s career, underperforming at the box office, despite top-drawer names on the poster. It was remade in 2004 and starred Dennis Quaid, but didn’t do much better second-time around. The reasons for both failures aren’t clear-cut but, if pushed, I’d cite the all-male cast as troubling; there are no females here, bar one belly-dancing hallucination that appears to a character. As a result, there’s only one point-of-view from the perspective of gender. Including women would’ve opened-up the dynamic and lent intriguing perspectives to the narrative. But this is 1965 we’re talking about. The only role that might’ve been considered for a woman in a genre picture such as this, would’ve either been a love interest, or, as someone who would divide the men… I’m generalising of course: but not by as much as you might think.
It’s not as if Aldrich was above making radical changes elsewhere to Trevor’s original novel. Perhaps his most striking alteration was to the character of the aircraft designer, one of the passengers aboard the doomed flight. In Aldrich’s film, this changed from the original Englishman to a German, played by Hardy Krüger; a German boy-soldier during the war, who later developed a successful acting career, with an emphasis on character-led pieces. In Phoenix, Krüger plays Heinrich Dorfmann, a designer of (model) aircraft, who’s understanding of the principles of flight, give him the confidence to build something ‘full-size’. Aldrich played on the lingering suspicions between the Germans and their erstwhile opponents, to add a frisson of drama to proceedings. Take Dorfmann’s natural aloofness for example, when he sulks atop a nearby dune, away from the group. Or his singular improvisation of an Arab-style head-dress from a hand-towel. Then there’s his unspoken arrogance at taking more water than his ration allowed, followed by his unapologetic return of the spoils once discovered. I found all these observations of Aldrich’s to be fascinating.
Phoenix opens with Aldrich taking his time to set-up key relationships and their hierarchy. The patriarch at the head of what we might loosely call a ‘family’, is Frank Towns, played by James Stewart. Although an iconic actor, best-known for his Westerns and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Stewart was also a distinguished pilot, having flown US bombers during the war and in this role at least, I’d like to think we were getting a glimpse of the man, as opposed to the actor. When we see Towns ‘work the problem’, as a vicious sandstorm brings the aircraft down, his reactions feel authentic. Yes, it was all shot on a soundstage, but even so… As the film unfolds, we’ll see another facet of Stewart’s range: that of the peeved by-stander, bearing a grudge and/or prejudice. Stewart’s brittle here at times, as when he’s chiding Moran over his drinking problem, or Dorfmann, for his brainstorm of an idea. It’s refreshing to see someone of his stature do more than ‘go through the motions’.
Lew Moran – Towns’s navigator – was played by Richard ‘Dickie’ Attenborough. An actor who’d enjoyed a solid career in UK film to that point, Attenborough was beginning to make his mark on Hollywood, following his err, ‘breakout’ role in the The Great Escape (1963). Here, he played a fragile alcoholic, who looks to the patriarchal Towns as someone who can be relied upon to ‘get things done’. Yet Moran’s also the catalyst who will sway opinion behind Dorfmann…
Did I mention there’s a sandstorm? It clogs-up the intakes of the aircraft’s twin engines, forcing Towns to put down on a stretch of desert, that’s one hundred and thirty miles off-course (caused by an earlier decision to fly around the storm). The crash kills two passengers immediately (one of whom was played by Aldrich himself) and cripples another (an Italian), who will ultimately take matters into his own hands, on realising that help won’t be coming… Aldrich only begins his title sequence at this point, nine minutes-in; freeze-framing each major player for a second or two, as we see them embracing the unfolding terror. Such pacing and editing is typical of Aldrich’s chutzpah and works hand-in-glove with Frank De Vol’s terrific, strident score.
That leaves a rag-tag collection of men who – luckily – have useful skills, on account of their employer and owner of the doomed aircraft: the fictitious ‘Arabco’ oil company. They’re doubly fortunate to have a selection of welding gear (plus oxygen), tools and winches aboard too, given the aircraft was being used as a cargo workhorse between oil fields. They’re also well-provisioned with ‘pressed dates’ and a full water-tank; author Trevor tidying-up the usual pre-occupations of tales within the genre, allowing their diverse characters to battle against something other than hunger & thirst. They’re still marooned, of course: confined to an island of broken steel in an ocean of sand…
So who else do we have? Peter Finch makes a convincingly arrogant Captain Harris of the British Army, along with the wonderful character actor Ronald Fraser as his cowardly Sergeant Watson; a man who, now liberated from what he sees as the norms of society and his chain-of-command, gives-in to an enormous chip on his shoulder and shirks his training & responsibility for personal gain & liberation. That Watson makes it out alive, and Harris doesn’t is a conceit typical of Aldrich. I called him a maverick film-maker and it’s true, for this reversal of the Hollywood cliché alone.
Not that Harris dies alone, for he is killed by a band of roving Bedouin, in the company of Dr. Renaud, played by Christian Marquand; a French actor who you might’ve seen as the plantation owner in the ‘Redux’ version of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Another to die before the Third Act, was the great Ernest Borgnine, who here plays Cobb; a man with mental issues who’d been receiving treatment from Renaud. In the film, Cobb just ‘can’t take it any more’ and having given-away all his possessions to his bemused fellow survivors, he walks-out of camp. Out of a misguided sense of care towards ‘his’ passengers, Towns actually goes after him, only to return empty-handed…
George Kennedy as Bellamy was another piece of what I call ‘anti-casting’; a conscious decision to cast against-type and showcase a familiar, boisterous actor in a quiet, ensemble piece. Okay, so Phoenix wasn’t quiet as such, but you get the idea. That leaves Ian Bannen as Crow, an irascible Scottish engineer, blessed with a fast wit and irreverent attitude that’ll prove useful. Bannen was always good value in pieces like this, that needed a diffident, almost aloof character who’d ‘come-good’ in the end; Bannen actually picked up a nod from the Academy for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ for his impact here.
Of all the themes on-show in the picture, the mutual distrust between Dorfmann and Towns is the strongest, with Moran as the arbitrator or ‘Matriarch’. When Dorfmann first reveals his plan to build something from the wreckage, both Towns and Moran are dismissive, but it’s Moran who’s first to see its merits and who, along with support from Renaud, convince Towns to go along (if only to occupy their minds as they wait for death). Right up to the point when things come together, it’s Towns who remains the slowest to embrace change yet, in his log, he admits both the inevitability of change and his unwillingness to accept it; that he struggles to admit as much publicly is another character flaw; one that screenwriter Lukas Heller delights in pursuing.
For the anoraks out there, a little digging revealed the aircraft used as the basis for the picture (and, I daresay, the novel), was the C82 Fairchild Packet; a cargo/passenger aircraft with a distinctive twin-boomed tail that first flew in 1944. After the type became surplus to USAAF requirements, the remaining fleet was sold-off to civilian operators. It’s entirely possible, that Elleston Trevor saw the Packet’s distinctive configuration and was inspired by the possibilities. For the film, a variety of genuine C82 hulks were pressed into service, with the film shot, not in North Africa, but on the Fox backlot and in stretches of the Arizona desert. The aircraft cobbled together from parts, was built for real by a small aircraft maker and allotted two stunt pilots who’d fly it for real. Unfortunately, one of them – Paul Mantz – was killed when the aircraft touched-down too heavily onto the sand and flipped-over.
In thinking about the film, I’ve come to understand it as an allegory of the Post-WW2, Cold-War world, in which hidebound prejudice must give way to (international) co-operation, if all are to survive: only the non-believers fall-away. At times, it’s like watching the major Western powers playing Happy Families. Yet as I mentioned before, the only woman present is a belly-dancing phantasm witnessed by Sgt. Watson and the only Arabs, in the Sahara for bloomin’ sake, are murdering brigands seen only in a single long-shot. I haven’t read Trevor’s book (can you tell?) so for all I know, women and Arabs both had greater presence that was cut for reasons of streamlining. But I doubt it. Trevor was catering for a specific genre audience, hungry for gritty action and featuring ‘men under adversity’. It was no place for female characters or benevolent Arabs who, in this specific context, might only have dragged the narrative off its intended path. I doubt it’d fly in 2018: or even 2004, which might be the real underlying reason for the failure of its remake.
Despite Aldrich’s optimism about co-operation and trust, the Vietnam War lay just around the corner. America, having not heeded the lessons in its Korean intervention, was about to commit an even greater folly. The innocence and upstanding honour shown by Towns here, belonged to an earlier, nobler era; one less burdened with cynicism. Maybe, in the final reckoning, it was too optimistic for its own good.
Maybe the public mood was hankering after something darker, in anticipation of what lay ahead. Or maybe they just didn’t like the poster and there were better films on-release at the time: sometimes it can be as fickle as that.
Three stinkin’ mud huts and a poisoned well. That’s not a place, it’s a disease!