While I was watching this film, I was reminded constantly of something Kurt Vonnegut had written when talking of the basics of creative writing. Basic rule #2 was: Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. The next rule was: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
In a very literal way, almost every scene of The Flight of the Phoenix resonates with that need for a glass of water. Chapped lips, cracked skin, a desperation for water—and the need to accomplish a task that certainly means the difference between life and death.
Remade in 2004 (more about that later), The Flight of the Phoenix sets off to a flying start (another Vonnegut rule?: Start as close to the end as possible). Frank Towns (James Stewart) is the pilot of a small plane owned by the Arabco oil company. Along with his navigator Lou Moran (Richard Attenborough), Towns is transporting about a dozen men to Benghazi. This is where we begin: in the plane.
On board is a varied assortment of people. There are Arabco’s own employees, such as Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine), the don’t-give-a-damn-for-anyone ‘Ratpack’ Crow (Ian Bannen), and Ratpack’s friend and colleague Bellamy (George Kennedy). There are a couple of others, all relaxed: chatting, playing music, reading an issue of Playboy.
There’s Dr Renaud (Christian Marquand), and Mr Standish (Dan Duryea), the latter anxious to get to Benghazi because he has to submit an important report to the management of Arabco.
There’s the young Gabriel (Gabriele Tinti), who’s looking forward to going home to his lovely wife.
There are also a few men who don’t work for Arabco, but have managed to get on this plane because they need to get to Benghazi. One of these is a German named Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger), whom Ratpack immediately starts baiting. It’s obvious that, for Ratpack at least, Dorfmann is a reminder of World War II and the Nazis. Dorfmann is cold and aloof, which only serves to make Ratpack’s remarks more snide.
Dorfmann has wangled a ride on the plane because he has been visiting his brother, and now that his holiday is over, has to get back to Benghazi.
Lastly, there are two military men: Captain Harris (Peter Finch), and his sergeant, Watson (Ronald Fraser).
They are en route to Benghazi when things start to go wrong. The navigator Moran has been too busy taking discreet sips from his hip flask to realise that their radio’s conked out. By the time he and Towns discover that they’ve lost contact with ground control, it’s too late—they’ve already veered 130 miles off course.
On the heels of this comes another calamity: one of their engines packs up. Somehow, struggling with the controls and yelling at his passengers to stay put, Towns manages to bring the plane down—onto a vast, frighteningly bleak spread of sand, bang in the middle of the Sahara.
It’s a rattling, terribly bumpy landing, and some of the cargo breaks loose in the process, crushing two of the men to death, and leaving Gabriel with his leg smashed to bits. Dr Renaud has a look at it, and admits to the others that the outlook is very grim for Gabriel.
The outlook is very grim for all of them, actually.
Towns is initially optimistic; surely they will be missed when they fail to arrive at Benghazi, and a search party will come for them. Meanwhile, they bury the two dead men; Dr Renaud attends to Gabriel as best as he can; and all of them settle down to wait to be rescued.
As the hours go by, that hope begins to fade. The fact of the matter is, Arabco is a fifth-rate company (as Towns bitterly dubs it), and they probably cannot spare the money to go searching for this plane.
Captain Harris, who is of a more practical bent of mind, eggs Towns on to take an inventory of how they’re situated. It turns out that there’s no problem as far as food is concerned; they have loads of pressed dates—so they won’t go hungry, even if their diet is monotonous.
The problem is with the water. Each man needs a minimum of a pint of water a day, and at that rate—if they ration themselves carefully—their water supply will last them only for about 12 days. After that…
Captain Harris decides to take action. Instead of sitting around waiting for help that may never come, he proposes to go look for help. He, along with Sergeant Watson, will take their share of water and head for the nearest oasis (which, according to Moran, is a place about 106 miles from where they’ve crash-landed).
Moran and Towns try to dissuade Harris by pointing out the dangers involved. Right now, they’re on the bare minimum water to get through the day. If Harris and Watson are walking, they’ll need more water. Harris says they’ll travel by night, when it’ll be cooler.
And how will they navigate? When Harris mentions compass, Moran says that the hills along the way are rich in iron and will play havoc with their magnetic compass. When Harris talks of navigating by the stars, he is told that just a 1% error in his calculation, and he can end up miles from where he was headed. He can actually end up walking in never-ending circles.
But Harris is, in his quietly dignified way, determined to go. Watson looks scared, but can’t disobey an order from his officer, so gets ready to go.
So does—oddly enough—Trucker Cobb, who’s taken it into his head that this is a good idea. Cobb excitedly packs, distributing his belongings (he gives his warm jacket to Moran, explaining that he won’t be needing it now)… and when he’s ready with his bag, he steps out to let Harris know that he, Cobb, will be going along too.
Of course, Cobb can’t go—he’s not fit enough. But when Harris tells him so, the ever-emotional Cobb flies at him in a rage. The others succeed in stopping Cobb from pounding Harris to a pulp, but Cobb is inconsolable. He wants to go.
…and Sergeant Watson doesn’t. Just as well, then, that when he’s walking out to join Harris, Watson trips and falls. Dr Renaud comes to have a look, and after a brief examination, says that Watson doesn’t seem to have any broken bones. It looks like a sprain. A day’s rest, and Watson should be fine. Watson agrees; if Harris will wait just one day, Watson will be able to come along.
Harris knows they don’t have the luxury of time. He’ll go alone.
This is when another man steps up. Carlos (Alex Montoya) says he’ll go along with Harris. He hands over his pet monkey to Bellamy, asking him as a favour to take care of Carlos’s pet for the time being.
The two men trudge off into the desert, and are watched by apprehensive eyes (Towns, Moran, and Renaud), relieved eyes (Watson), envious and resentful eyes (Cobb), and the others—most of whom probably feel that it’s better Harris and Carlos than them.
(I love the symbolism of those crosses behind the departing men—a poignant reminder that Harris and Carlos are probably walking towards their deaths too).
It is at this point that a small, significant conversation takes place. Earlier, before Harris had got ready to set off, Dorfmann had put forward the suggestion that they use the wreckage of the plane to build another aircraft—and Towns’s reaction had been an infuriated “Are you joking?!”
Now, Moran happens to notice Dorfmann sitting and reading a professional journal, and asks Dorfmann if he is in the oil industry too.
Now comes a revelation: Dorfmann curtly replies that he’s not in the oil business. He’s a designer of aeroplanes. The journal he’s reading is about aircraft design.
So Dorfmann knew what he was talking about when he suggested they make a plane of their own. Towns must be told about this.
In the meantime, another important—and unforeseen— incident occurs: Cobb, half-crazed by his desire to go after Harris and Carlos, goes off into the desert while the others are asleep. He’s so completely a novice to the horrors of the desert (or has he really lost his wits?) that he doesn’t even take any water with him.
…with the result that Towns, who sets out to look for Cobb, finds him dead, and with the vultures already beginning to gather around.
They have to face up now to the fact that they’re already, in effect, five men down. There’s almost no chance that Harris and Carlos will survive; Cobb is dead, and Gabriel is as good as gone. The desert is taking them all, one by one, inexorably. The only shred of hope is in Dorfmann’s idea: to build a plane from the wreckage. It seems a pipe dream, but if nothing else, it will at least give them some way of spending their time rather than just waiting for death.
And so begins what they hope will culminate in the flight of the phoenix. But will this disparate group of men—some suspicious of each other, one a coward, one a drunk, one an ageing pilot who mistrusts the man who’s designing this new plane—be able to work as a team? Or will their individual weaknesses, both physical and emotional, come in the way? Will the phoenix be able to rise from its ashes?
What I liked about this film:
Everything. It’s very well-scripted (it was based on a book by Elleston Trevor) and well-directed (by Robert Aldrich), and the cast is superb. All of them—Stewart, Attenborough, Krüger, Finch, Borgnine, and the others—put in fine performances. In particular, I loved Attenborough’s Lou Moran, a man with his own weaknesses (alcohol, in Lou’s case), but also a good man at heart: a man who is often the voice of conscience and humanity when those around begin to crumble.
More on what I liked about this film, in the section to follow.
(Yes, I’m skipping my usual ‘What I didn’t like’ section, because that would be really nit-picking).
As I mentioned earlier, The Flight of the Phoenix was remade in 2004. The later version starred Dennis Quaid, Hugh Laurie, and Miranda Otto (among others), and I actually watched it before I watched the original. Not having seen the Stewart-Attenborough film then, I thought the 2004 version was a decent enough film. Not brilliant (some bits of it made me cringe), but a fairly entertaining adventure film nevertheless.
Now, having seen the 1965 film, I know better.
In their basics, the two films are pretty similar: a plane crash-lands in a desert (in the 2004 film, it’s the Gobi, not the Sahara). The pilot, his co-pilot and the passengers are left with seemingly no option but to wait it out—and when it seems as if nobody’s coming to rescue them, one of the passengers, who turns out to be an aeroplane designer, suggests they build a plane from what’s left of the old one.
The 2004 version, though, makes some changes that I can only think were added to jazz up the story and make it more appealing to an audience looking for an out-and-out action flick. For example, in the 1965 film, the group has only a relatively short-lived (and cautious, if tragic) interaction with some passing nomadic bandits. In the 2004 version, this is made into a full-blown battle, with the bandits and the desert ganging up against our heroes. (Or, actually: heroes and heroine. A lady is added to the group to allow for what seems in bits like a budding romance).
Another complaint I have with the 2004 version is with the unrealistic feel of it. Not in the way of CGI—that is first-class—but with the rest of it. People out in the desert with little to shield them from sun and sand, and with very little water, and they look only mildly sweaty and dirty?
The 1965 version did a far better job with the makeup in that respect. All the men, as the days go by, look worse and worse: beards sprout, lips crack, sores appear on exposed faces and arms and necks, and you can almost feel how very hot and dry it is out there.
That also seems to me a more readily visible manifestation of the 1965 film’s general air of being more realistic, more grim, than its later counterpart. The Dennis Quaid The Flight of the Phoenix at times gives the impression that these people forget—to the point of being ludicrous—exactly how much trouble they’re in (there’s one sensationally idiotic scene in which they’re playing music and dancing—Hugh Laurie’s character even takes time out to play golf—while going about building the plane).
In the earlier film, while Ratpack does crack some jokes, most of them are rather bitter, and recognisable as his way of trying to keep a hold on his sanity.
Then there’s the way the 1965 film respects its audience’s intelligence and general knowledge. There’s a scene, in both films, where one man decides to paint a name on the side of the new plane. He’s doing it, when another comes by. This is how the conversation proceeds in the 2004 version when someone asks why ‘Phoenix’:
Man 1: “No, it’s not the city. The phoenix was a desert bird from Egyptian mythology.”
Man 2 (Towns): “Consumed itself with fire. Rose again from the ashes.”
And this is how it was in the 1965 version:
Sgt Watson (looks up at the letters): “What sort of a name is that supposed to be?”
Standish (painting the letters): “It’s a bird. The phoenix was a mythical bird that burnt itself to ashes and rose—”
Sgt Watson: “I’m not bloody stupid, you know!” (goes away)
Yes, Watson knew what a phoenix was, and so do I. I don’t need it spelled out, thank you.
If you want fast-paced action, some silly humour/forced gaiety, and adventure that won’t make you feel really worried about the characters in it, watch the 2004 film. If you’d rather watch a disaster movie that also explores human emotion and character—from true heroism to cowardice, arrogance to self-doubt, hatred to unconditional love for a fellow human being: try the 1965 version. It’s a far, far superior film.