On a Wing and a Prayer
Watching "The Flight of the Phoenix" now I can't but help be reminded of "Alive" with it's storyline being about a plane crash and what the survivors went through. But they are very different movies with "The Flight of the Phoenix" being more akin to a gripping adventure/ disaster movie and to be honest a very good one at that. Director Robert Aldrich manages to combine the action adventure side of the story as the men try to make a plane out of a wrecked planes wings with the more emotional side of things as we see how being stuck in the desert in the blistering heat with little hope of surviving affects them. It is more focussed on entertaining through the adventure and drama but it combines the two reasonably well to make a movie which does entertain whilst also making you think.
When his cargo plane carrying passengers gets caught in a middle of a sand storm and suffers mechanical failures Frank Towns (James Stewart - Shenandoah) is forced to bring it down in the middle of a desert. With the plane damaged and little hope of being rescued the men stand little chance of surviving. But one of the passengers, Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger - The Wild Geese), an airplane designer comes up with a plan to build a new plane from the parts of the wrecked one. With food and water running out as the sun and heat takes it toll the men must put his plans into action and hope it works.
One of the best things that director Robert Aldrich does with "The Flight of the Phoenix" is not to prolong the disaster element of things. Before the opening credits have finished rolling we have met all the characters and the plane has gotten in to difficulty and crashed into the middle of a desert. It means that rather than waste time with the unimportant drama aboard the plane the movie can focus on the drama of the stranded survivors in the desert.
That drama comes in various forms as we watch the survivors deal with the situation. There is the drama of Captain Harris wanting to march out of the desert and accompanying that there is Sergeant Watson who is sick and tired of being ordered around by him. But you also get the drama of Trucker Cobb who even before the crash was a bit edgy and being stranded pushes him over the edge as he becomes manic. Plus of course you have the planes pilot Frank Towns who blames himself for the crash and those who die because of it, yet still tries to be optimistic about being rescued.
All of these little layers makes "The Flight of the Phoenix" a multi layered movie which delivers an aspect of how the crash affects those involved. But they also help support what is in many ways the main storyline of the men, lead by plane engineer Heinrich Dorfmann, in trying to build a plane out of the wrecked planes wings. Now that does seem far fetched and to be honest probably is but this storyline is so well worked and what they build looks so believable that you are sucked in to it, that maybe they can build a plane out of two wings and one engine. And you have to say it is fascinating to watch as the men with what tools they have cobble to get this makeshift airplane, using adhoc winches to move heavy wings and an engine block.
But at the same time as you have the adventure of building this plane going on you also have a power battle as Towns does not see eye to eye with Dorfmann. It gives the story a darker element as with Dorfmann being a German there is some underlying bitterness which surfaces. But to top it off there is a brilliant twist, one which you never see coming yet when it arrives it is not out of place in the slightest. Credit to the writers for managing to include such a magnificent and unexpected twist with out it ending up ridiculous.
All of which makes "The Flight of the Phoenix" a good movie but it is a single performance which ends up turning it into something more. Yes the cast included pretty decent performances from Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy and Hardy Krüger but it is James Stewart as Frank Towns who makes the movie more than just good. Stewart makes Frank Towns a very real person someone who is in conflict with himself, blaming himself for the crash whilst trying to keep spirits up. And at the same time you have the bitterness of being ordered around by a German when Dorfmann forcefully takes control. You can see resentment and anger in Towns yet James Stewart never over does it, there is no over dramatics at all rather than an actor using his own emotions to create something real and powerful. Without the stunning performances of James Stewart "The Flight of the Phoenix" would have ended up nothing more than an average adventure/disaster movie.
What this all boils down to is that "The Flight of the Phoenix" is a surprisingly good movie because it combines the adventure of a group of crash victims trying to get themselves out of the desert whilst at the same time showing how being stranded and with little hope of surviving affects them. But it is James Stewart who turns it into a much more impressive movie because he delivers a character which is so believable, so conflicted and so bitter than you can feel every emotion running through his body.