Robert Aldrich was one of the best directors of the ’50s and early ’60s. He made two of the best films ever made Kiss Me Deadly (which may be the ultimate film noir) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. He had a bit of a rough patch before the smash hit success of The Dirty Dozen and The Flight of the Phoenix falls smack into the middle of that period. It’s a survival film and predates the rise of the disaster film of the ’70s.
James Stewart plays a pilot flying a cargo plane carrying military and oilmen and due to a sandstorm it forces to crash hand into the Sahara desert. They are way too far from the destination to walk so they have built an aircraft before the food and water runs out. The supporting cast of characters is a who’s who of the ’60 male character actors so you have Richard Attenborogh, Peter Finch, George Kennedy, Ian Bannen and Ernest Borgnine. The most interesting role is the one played by German actor Hardy Krüger who claims to be aeroplane engineer but there is more to it than that in a fantastic twist. He also has an air of the Nazi in his character which was common place for any role in an American film involving a German in the first few decades after WW2.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film (and Aldrich’s career in general) is Aldrich never shot a film in CinemaScope. Given the fact Aldrich shot a great majority of his films in at the height of CinemaScope it’s strange he ever experimented with it. The Flight of the Phoenix is one of the most obvious films to have CinemaScope, it’s a relatively epic film about guys stranded in the desert after all. The opening music is a total Lawrence of Arabia rip-off so from the get go you think you are about to watch this grand epic. However Aldrich instead of focusing on the grandiose story he focuses mostly on the character interactions and their quirks, which is the film’s greatest strength.
The film was a big flop when it came out which was down to a similar film that came out before, the cast were stars but their star power was fading and the initial critical response was relatively mixed. It did get an Oscar nomination for Ian Bannan’s performance as well for editing. The editing nomination wasn’t deserved because the film’s pacing is all over the shop, the middle section is a really chore and the film’s final moments is fairly anticlimactic given what has transpired before.
The Flight of the Phoenix is one of Aldrich’s lesser films but it’s full of quirky characters and some solid twists and turns. The film’s running time is far too long; it’s pushing the 2 and a half hour point and large portions of the middle section could have used some serious cuts. The disc isn’t one of Eureka’s most packed releases but it does contain an excellent interview with the historian Sheldon Hall. The trailer and a booklet with an essay by Neil Sinyard round the package up.