The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
Robert Aldrich puts together a cast that would ultimately include a total of 5 Oscar winners in this desert saga from 20th Century Fox. Aside from a brief desert mirage this film features an all male cast lead by James Stewart. Aldrich was no stranger to directing male dominated films from Vera Cruz to his smash 1967 production of The Dirty Dozen. Teaming with screenplay writer Lukas Heller for the 3rd of their 6 collaborations, Aldrich elicits fine performances from a cast that also includes Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Hardy Kruger, George Kennedy, Dan Duryea, Ian Bannen,and Ronald Fraser.
The plot is straight forward, Stewart pilots a plane that crash lands in the desert 10 minutes into the film and for the next 2 plus hours he stands by and reluctantly gives way to Hardy Kruger as his character attempts to redesign what is left of the plane to get them airborne again. Stewart was of course in real life a highly decorated WW2 pilot. The performance from Stewart is top notch and here he has given us his last great performance as he stays away from his aw shucks trade mark character. He is matched by all, from Attenborough as his co-pilot, Kruger’s arrogant designer, Finch’s military man on down. Borgnine who was no stranger to Aldrich films having appeared in 6 of them generally gives us the lovable Ernie performance this time round. British character actors Ian Bannen and especially Ronald Fraser turn in some great work as well.
The interplay between the leads and how they are essentially representing each others conscience is a driving force in Heller’s screenplay as well as Stewart versus Kruger and the battle for dominance. The desert offers a breathtaking backdrop for some fine photography in this story that is ultimately about the will to go on living. As for bits of trivia, a playboy magazine makes an appearance which prompts me to wonder could this be the first time one makes a movie appearance and William Aldrich(son of Robert) who appears as a casualty in the opening crash went on to produce the remake starring Dennis Quaid in 2004. All in all this is a first rate film made by professionals and starring them as well.