‘The Flight of the Phoenix’ still flies high


The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Directed by Robert Aldrich

When their cargo jet crash lands on a routine trip across the Sahara to Benghazi, Libya (Republicans blame the crash on Hillary Clinton; she blames it on a YouTube video), a dozen men try to find their way through the desert to civilization. There’s the pilot, Frank Towns (Jimmy Stewart) and his co-pilot Lew (Richard Attenborough), plus a military man and his sergeant, a man with a monkey, a lunatic, and other wildly unpredictable characters. They’ll encounter the 6 stages of imminent demise. First, freaking the hell out. Then comes the waiting—for passing planes or for a workable plan to get them home. Third is delusion and paranoia, followed by a keen distrust of those in charge. Last is desperation. But before all hope is lost, the single most important passenger—an airplane designer (Hardy Kruger)—will announce he thinks he can repair the plane and get them out. But water is low and they’ll soon come across some unfriendly desert raiders. Plus, the sun will mess with their heads. Some of them will miss their flight.


Nearing the end of his career, renaissance man Jimmy Stewart—only 57, but still past his Frank Capra/Alfred Hitchcock prime—shows he’s still got it. Now greyed and possessing an authoritative maturity he might not have had before—angry Jimmy Stewart is a Jimmy Stewart I wish I’d seen more of—the distinguished actor now only requires a thoughtful glance to speak volumes. In comparison, Richard Attenborough’s best work still lay ahead of him in 1965. Nearly twenty years later, he’d win his only two Oscars, for directing the 1983 Best Picture-winning “Ghandi,” before capping his career as the eccentric Dr. John Hammond in “Jurassic Park.” Here, like the other characters, Attenborough plays his part. The cast gets the job done without stealing the spotlight. Besides a nomination for film editing, the only Oscar nomination was for supporting actor Ian Bannen, though his role as Crow was far less impressive than some of the others, at least from my perspective now 50 years later.


Based on the novel by Elleston Trevor, which released just a year before the film, the script effectively conveys the deteriorating psyche of the men and outlines what one might think are the most logical steps to take in order to fix their problems. It’s dramatic and rather suspenseful, but clocking in at nearly 2 ½ hours, “The Flight of the Phoenix” becomes boring long before its exciting conclusion. Still, this crafty mid-century epic was a big deal fifty years ago. And it still far exceeds the lousy 2004 remake, even with its inferior effects.


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