Blu-ray Review: The Flight of the Phoenix

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Robert Aldrich | CAST: James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Krüger, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Ronald Fraser, Christian Marquand
3/22/22 | PRICE: DVD none, Blu-ray $27.64
BONUSES: Conversation between filmmaker Walter Hill and film scholar Alain Silver; interview with James Stewart biographer Donald Dewey
SPECS: NR | 142 min. | Drama adventure | 1.85:1 widescreen | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie   | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Best known for his subversive takes on familiar genres, from the Western, crime, and war movies to the “woman’s picture” and the “guy comedy,” Robert Aldrich also made a handful of more conventional pictures that were highly entertaining but contained none of his usual “provocations.” The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) was such a film — a “men under pressure” drama that served as a sort of dry run for his 1967 hit, The Dirty Dozen.

The plot, based on a novel by Elleston Trevor, introduces a classic dilemma — a small cargo plane with passengers aboard flying from one part of Libya to another crash-lands in the desert. One of the passengers (Hardy Krüger, Barry Lyndon) just happens to be a designer of airplanes who maps out of a way to take the downed plane and create a smaller craft that can fly the surviving passengers to the nearest town. The pilot (James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story) initially opposes the plan but realizes that it will keep the crew and passengers busy even if the craft isn’t airworthy.

Aldrich, who both produced and directed the film, approached it in a classical fashion, with his frequent colleagues, cinematographer Joseph Biroc (The Longest Yard), editor Michael Luciano (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) and scripter Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen), spelling out the story in as lean (yet suspenseful) a manner as possible. Aldrich’s favorite composer, Frank De Vol (Kiss Me Deadly) was allowed to go over the top, as a good deal of the film is punctuated by “gripping” musical cues.

The strong suit here is the all-male cast (except for Barrie Chase, who appears briefly in a fantasy sequence). The actors all delineate their characters well from their first appearances onward — even George Kennedy (Airport), whose character has exactly one line of dialogue that explains his presence on the plane. Europeans Christian Marquand and Gabriele Tinti play doomed passengers, while Krüger is very good as the airplane designer.

The film plays on the notion of the characters’ nationalities. The British characters are thus all button-down individuals who seethe beneath their calm exteriors, with Ronald Fraser distinguishing himself as a soldier who chooses to disobey his officer (Peter Finch, Sunday Bloody Sunday) during the construction of the smaller plane. The American cast members include Aldrich regulars like Ernest Borgnine and Dan Duryea, who both play troubled characters.

Despite the give and take between most of the cast, all eyes are on James Stewart, who delivers an interesting blend of the “grace under pressure” aspect of his heroic roles and the simmering anger that he displayed in a series of Westerns directed by Anthony Mann, as well as the dread shown in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Biographer Donald Dewey offers background info on Stewart’s real-life record as a WWII bomber pilot in an original supplement created for this package. “Lucky Jim,” as he was nicknamed by his fellow flyers, knew when to complete his missions, but he also knew when to retreat and not put the men he commanded in harm’s way. All in all, Dewey notes that Stewart spent 1,800 hours in the air during the war.

The Mann Westerns are singled out by Dewey for creating the “bitter persona” that appeared in some of Stewart’s finest Fifties movies and afterward. (Curiously, Stewart’s films with Hitchcock are not brought up in this regard.) Dewey explains how this persona played into Phoenix and how Stewart learned to deal with something he first experienced on the film — namely, a European and British cast who had memorized all of their lines before the first day of rehearsal.

“The most Hollywood film” made by Aldrich is the way that director Walter Hill describes Phoenix in another original video supplement. Hill rhapsodizes about Aldrich, praising his “bleak, existential vision” and the unique “weirdness” found in best films. Despite Phoenix being a distinctly un-weird creation, Hill emphasizes the fact that it was still a work that was “not compromised” at all, with Aldrich making no concessions to Twentieth Century Fox.

Hill’s interviewer and conversation partner is Alain Silver, coauthor of the biography/film study What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich? Silver contends that Phoenix fits with Aldrich’s blatantly subversive works in that it contains both characters who follow the rules and those “who know there’s a better way.” He explains that the film was ultimately frustrating for Aldrich, as it bombed badly at the box office and yet the filmmaker thought it would be a hit. His instincts proved much better with The Dirty Dozen.

Buy or Rent The Flight of the Phoenix

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”