In these days of advanced communication, GPS and satellites, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when a plane getting stranded in the middle of nowhere was such a fear it became part of popular culture. There were a couple of real horror stories of planes downed in WWII in remote parts. The vine covered Hellcat with a skeleton in the cockpit became a common trope right up to the ‘70s. The desert-crash had particularly gripped the public conscious after a perfectly preserved B-24 bomber, The Lady be Good, was found in the Libyan Desert in 1958, 15 years after it had been assumed to have ditched in the sea. It was another two years before they found the remains of the crew who walked miles before the desert claimed them. The fate of The Lady be Good inspired several stories including Elleston Trevor’s 1964 novel, The Flight of the Phoenix, and its subsequent movie adaptation. It’s a lot harder to get lost nowadays so you can’t make movies like this anymore and for the purposes of this paragraph please ignore the fact it was re-made in 2004.
A cargo plane full of A-list and Z-list actors gets caught in a sandstorm and one of its two engines is knocked out. The experienced but aging pilot (James Stewart) puts them down with only a few casualties amongst the Z-listers but the plane is going nowhere. The alcoholic co-pilot (Richard Attenborough) failed to make sure the radio was working and no-one knows they’re there. With the nearest oasis over a hundred miles away (if they could even find it), they’re screwed. There’s character conflict, a doomed attempt at getting away, but sooner or later they’re going to have to listen to the world’s most German German (Hardy Krüger – the go-to German in 1965), a passenger who, as luck would have it, is an aircraft designer. He reckons there’s enough left of the plane to build a new one and fly to safety. Is he mad? Well they’ve got nothing to lose...
Phoenix is an undoubted classic. It’s been called an engineer’s film (and the resultant “Phoenix” is both impressive and believable) but things like this are always going to be about the characters so it’s nice to see the heavyweights in good form. A few are a bit underdeveloped (surprisingly, George Kennedy and Ian Bannen) but there’s a wonderfully difficult relationship between a British army officer (Peter Finch) and his sergeant (Ronald Fraser in career-best form). The over-bearing officer thinks his sergeant is the salt of earth but that feeling is not reciprocated. Subject of which, this is a movie that boasts some of the most memorable moments on celluloid. The officer marching off to find that oasis: will he just walk in a big circle? Of course he does and guess who finds him. The “twist” scene: utterly brilliant but we’re not going to ruin it. And the engine-starting climax is quite possibly the tensest scene in cinema.
It’s nearly perfect and it’s definitely essential.
Special Features: Interview with film historian Sheldon Hall / Trailer / Booklet
THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: ROBERT ALDRICH / SCREENPLAY: LUKAS HELLER / STARRING: JAMES STEWART, RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH, HARDY KRÜGER, PETER FINCH, ERNEST BORGNINE, IAN BANNEN, RONALD FRASER, CHRISTIAN MARQUAND, DAN DURYEA, GEORGE KENNEDY / RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 12TH