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FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, THE(director: Robert Aldrich; screenwriters: Lukas Heller/from the novel by Elleston Trevor; cinematographer: Joseph Biroc; editor: Michael Luciano; music: De Vol; cast: James Stewart (Capt. Frank Towns), Richard Attenborough (Lew Moran), Peter Finch (Capt. Harris), Hardy Kruger (Heinrich Dorfmann), Ernest Borgnine (Trucker Cobb), Ian Bannen (‘Ratbags’ Crow), Ronald Fraser (Sgt. Watson), Christian Marquand (Dr. Renaud); Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Aldrich; 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; 1965)
“Plays against convention by raising scary questions about leadership.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Aldrich (“Hustle”/Vera Cruz”/”The Dirty Dozen”) helms this star-studded odd blend of a disaster and adventure film (shot mostly on location near Yuma, Arizona). It concerns itself with a behavioral code of honor among a group of men stranded in a desert after a plane crash and, though each has their own ideas about living life, how they must unite around one way of doing things to survive becomes the thrust of the story. This theme of who lives and who dies, that being wrong is not a moral deficiency and how the individual acts in a group, are familiar ones in Aldrich films and here are given further scrutiny. Lukas Heller puts together a devilish screenplay, that plays against convention by raising scary questions about leadership that strays from the usual heroics seen in Hollywood. It’s based on the novel by Elleston Trevor.

Capt. Frank Towns (James Stewart), an aging old school pilot, a dinosaur who rejects the new technology in favor of his can-do cockiness, is flying a charter cargo twin-engine plane carrying several oil-rig workers and British soldiers stationed in a remote Sahara outpost who are going on leave. His navigator is Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough), who gets his courage from the bottle. They run into a sandstorm, lose power and crash. Stuck in the sweltering remote North African desert, at least 100 miles off course, with water for only about eight or ten days, no possible radio contact and with little chance of letting rescuers know where they are located, things look grim. The pilot accepts responsibility for the crash, following his flying instincts to ride through the storm and not relying on technology, and feels guilt-ridden that he already caused a few deaths and one severely injured survivor. The gung-ho British Army officer, Capt. Harris (Peter Finch), who goes by the book, can’t be dissuaded by Towns to not set off on foot with Sgt. Watson (Ronald Fraser) to see if they can do the impossible and reach the nearest oasis to get help. The cowardly, but not that foolish, Watson feigns an ankle sprain injury to get out of the trek. An oil-rig foreman, Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine), volunteers to go but is rejected because he had a nervous breakdown and has been recalled from duty because he’s so unstable. He’s being escorted for further psychological help by Dr. Renaud (Christian Marquand). When Cobb sneaks off to follow Harris, Towns feels obligated to chase him down even if it means risking his own life and finds the nutty guy dead of heat exhaustion. Upon his return to the base, Towns figures their plight was caused because Moran was too drunk to check the weather reports before departure. In the meantime, Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger ), a Germanic obsessive type, with a rigid personality trait that could remind one of a Nazi, claims to be an airplane designer, and believes he can build from the wreckage a single-engine plane. He’s at first ridiculed and scorned for being so German, but then as the days pass he seems to be the only hope and the group goes along with his plan. The tension mounts as the German is dead set on showing the anti-tech but resourceful American he can do it with good ole German efficiency, even though the only planes he ever built were model toy planes. That he does it and the heroic Brit and American Captains, Harris and Towns, can’t save the men, raises all sorts of speculations ranging from thoughts about the ‘survival of the fittest’ to acting irrational in the face of conflict. Of course, one could rightfully ask, wouldn’t it have made more sense and been much easier to just repair the plane’s broken radio. But then all the philosophizing wouldn’t have had an opening, and the pic could have ended up looking just as intellectually bland as most other similar thrillers. The pic did pay the price for its attempt to make this boys adventure story seem more like a thinking man’s film—it didn’t do a good box office.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”