THE AVIATORS : Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix

Published on: February 7th, 2005

The Flight of the Phoenix : [7/10] : USA 1965 : Robert ALDRICH : 149 mins approx

As in Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the opening credits for The Flight of the Phoenix are withheld for an audaciously long time – and when they arrive, they prove well worth the wait. The action freezes as we're introduced to the whole cast of characters, one by one, as the aeroplane in which they're flying commences a very rough 'emergency landing': veteran pilot (James Stewart), nervy navigator (Richard Attenborough), plus passengers played by a variety of (male) actors of varying ages and nationalities – including Christian Marquand, Hardy Kruger, Ronald Fraser, Ian Bannen, and George Kennedy. The presence of Kennedy on board a movie aircraft is, of course, a guaranteed harbinger of serious trouble – one wonders how Kennedy's fellow-passengers coped when they saw him taking his seat on real-life jets – and disaster duly ensues when the plane comes down in a desolate expanse of the Libyan desert.

The crash immediately takes out two of the minor players – an bouzouki-strumming annoyance and Aldrich's own bland, blond son William (producer of the 2004 Phoenix remake) – and strands the survivors with limited rations slap bang in the middle of nowhere. Prefiguring dogme variation The King is Alive, one of the blokes (Peter Finch!) reckons the best chance of survival is to trek out into the dune-filled terrain in search of help – needless to say, this plan proves ill-advised.

With all their remaining options fading fast, bespectacled twentysomething (FRG-)German aircraft designer Dorfmann (Kruger) proposes a startling solution: he reckons he can cannibalise the crashed aeroplane into a smaller model which might even be able to get airborne. After much reluctance and skepticism, the men set to work. Complications ensue, and it later transpires that Dorfmann isn't quite the aviation expert he initially appears – indeed, he turns out to be something of a distant cousin to the overconfident juvenile bell-founder whose labours provide the tense climax for Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev.

Though overlong, slow in parts, and saddled with an unfortunate, sixties-emphatic score (by 'DeVol'), this Phoenix proves a sound enough conveyance, Lukas Heller's screenplay (adapted from Elleston Trevor's novel) ambitiously cobbling together elements of (a) Poseidon Adventure-ish disaster movie, (b) tense, Wages of Fear-style tense all-male psychological drama and (c) philosophical parable into a rough-edged but workable whole.

The 'parable' aspect is the part that works best today – especially since the title does somewhat give the ending away. In this situation of dire extremis, Aldrich and Heller show two types of man emerging as the crucial forces: Stewart's old-school, emotional, flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants pilot and Kruger's cool, analytical technocrat. It's a very mid-sixties collision of temperaments, and while it's clear that Dorfmann represents what The Aviator's Howard Hughes calls "the way of the future", it's also evident that the past is much too valuable to be jettisoned entirely. What The Flight of the Phoenix optimistically presents is an uneasy but ultimately amiable state of cooperation between the two – it's no coincidence the last words we hear are a jocular chat about imperial measures vs metric.

On closer inspection, however, the role of alcoholic navigator Attenborough is perhaps most crucial of all – he's the go between not only between Kruger and Stewart, but between those two and the 'labourers' without whom no progress would be possible. And Attenborough turns in easily the most compelling and convincing performance of the bunch – it seems remarkable in retrospect that out of the whole cast the only one to obtain an Oscar nomination for this movie was … ah well, see if you can guess for yourself.

Neil Young

1st January, 2005
[seen same day on TV in Sunderland]