Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
When I was nine years old, I happened to be flipping through the channels on our family TV set, a 20-inch Magnavox color set. It was a mild South Florida autumn Friday night, and with most of my friends either watching their own televisions at home or doing homework, I had nothing better to do than to read a book or watch television.
In 1972, we didn't have cable or satellite television, and even Fox, UPN, and the WB hadn't even been dreamed of yet. We had the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), a Spanish language channel, and a couple of independent channels on the VHF and UHF bands; usually I watched WCIX because it ran movies quite frequently -- the 8 o'clock movie on weekday nights, and two afternoon flicks on weekends.
Because the Big Three networks had first dibs on big blockbuster flicks of relatively recent vintage (usually a year or two after a film's theatrical run), Channel Six's selection was heavy on older films -- usually from the Forties, Fifties and Sixties -- of varying quality and various genres. You could watch, say, 1953's melodrama Titanic on Monday, for instance, and on Tuesday you might end up seeing Abbott and Costello in the 1941 service comedyBuck Privates. Somewhere in between, the canny programmers would include truncated versions of big epics such as 1965's The Flight of the Phoenix.
Directed by Robert (The Dirty Dozen) Aldrich and starring James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Hardy Krüger , Ernest Borgnine, and Peter Finch, The Flight of the Phoenix appears to be just a run-of-the-mill adventure/melodrama centered on the all-too-familiar "plane crashes in the boonies, we meet a mixed bunch of characters among the survivors, who must then fight the elements and find a way back to civilization" storyline. Think of it as the cinematic grandfather of ABC's Lost without the jungle or mysterious polar bear.
Although Aldrich's film does depend on the traditions of the airplane-disaster genre that includes such films as 1954's The High and the Mighty and the first Airport movie (1970), it transcends them by having a literate script based on a pretty good novel and fine performances from its mostly-male cast, led by the always watchable James Stewart, who plays pilot Frank Towns as a veteran flier with more than his share of flaws. Towns is no clean-cut, all-knowing, oh-so-heroic figure here; he's nothing like John Wayne's character in The High and the Mighty -- he's a nice guy and prone to guilt trips, to be sure, but he's also inefficient, combative, and even mean at times. Clearly, Towns is nothing like Charles Lindbergh, which was one of Stewart's best roles (in the biopic The Spirit of St. Louis) or the pro-baseball player-turned-bomber pilot in Strategic Air Command, but he's far more interesting.
The conceit of The Flight of the Phoenix is fairly simple -- a C-82 Packet freight-and-passenger plane crashes in the desert somewhere in Africa, and a motley crew of pilot and passengers must figure out a way to first survive, then escape the blistering sun and waterless sands and get back to civilization. They can't, obviously, walk out of the crash site, but neither can they fly out with the plane as it is, with one engine totally bashed and part of the fuselage busted up.
Now, of course the film title foreshadows what is to come: the only way out of this is by flying out, and a phoenix, obviously, is a mythological bird that lived for 500 years, died in flames, and was reborn from the ashes. And it is Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger ), a sometimes arrogant know-it-all who rubs Towns the wrong way at times, who conceives the seemingly impossible task of taking the C-82 apart and fashioning a new, albeit smaller, plane out of the usable components to fly out of what would otherwise be their sandy grave.
Mr. Towns, you behave as if stupidity were a virtue. Why is that? -- Heinrich Dorfmann
In lesser creative hands, this movie would have been just another survival story, with far too many cliches borrowed from other plane crash or set-in-the-desert films. But Aldrich makes the viewer care about each character...the braver-than-expected bookkeeper (Dan Duryea), the peace-making mediator (Richard Attenborough), the two Army soldiers (Peter Finch and Ronald Fraser), whose personalities are so different they are like oil and water, and the gruff "Trucker" Cobb, played to perfection by Oscar-winning actor Ernest Borgnine. There is no macho posturing or silly gunplay in this version; instead we see these guys argue, go thirsty, bleed, sweat, get heat blisters, and fight the harsh sun as they struggle to put the Phoenix together.
Frank Towns: I've lost five men, Lew. Gabriel in there, he's on the way, that'll be six. Are you asking me to try to kill the rest of them trying to get a deathtrap off the ground. I don't know... I don't know, Lew. It won't work... it just can't work
Lew Moran: All right, then, it can't. Maybe it can't and we'll all be killed. But if there's just one chance in a thousand that he's got something, boy, I'd rather take it than just sit around here waiting to die.
Because my dad had died in a plane crash the same year this movie was released by 20th Century Fox, my mom wasn't too thrilled when she saw me watching The Flight of the Phoenix on television, and indeed, the first time I watched it I had terrible nightmares. The crash of the plane is pretty impressive, and the ordeal that the survivors go through is vividly portrayed, so much so that one can feel the scorching heat of the Saharan sun on the aluminum of the plane's wings and fuselage.
James Stewart ... Capt. Frank Towns
Richard Attenborough ... Lew Moran
Peter Finch ... Capt. Harris
Hardy Krüger ... Heinrich Dorfmann
Ernest Borgnine ... E. 'Trucker' Cobb
Ian Bannen ... 'Ratbags' Crow
Ronald Fraser ... Sgt. Watson
Christian Marquand ... Dr. Renaud
Dan Duryea ... Standish
George Kennedy ... Mike Bellamy
Gabriele Tinti ... Gabriel
Alex Montoya ... Carlos
Peter Bravos ... Tasso
William Aldrich ... Bill
Barrie Chase ... Farida
Stanley Ralph Ross ... Arab singer
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12