It’s not hard to see the appeal of Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix, a riveting adventure film featuring an all-star cast headed by Jimmy Stewart and Richard Attenborough. The premise, whereby fourteen men are stranded in the desert after a plane crash, is classic Saturday matinee material. The film’s success lies in its perfectly distilled ingredients: a killer premise, well-realised characters, and a tight script that doesn’t pull its punches. Coming from the director of The Dirty Dozen, this is hardly surprising, although Aldrich also manages to tease out a triumphant warmth in his characters that is not always present in his other work.
Lukas Heller’s script situates The Flight of the Phoenix firmly within a post war context, with barely concealed tensions between the German Dorfmann and his mainly British and American companions constantly threatening to boil over into violence. Aldrich avoids easy moralising, however, by contrasting the Teutonic Dorfmann’s claims that he never fought in the war against the English Sergeant Watson’s (Ronald Fraser) shattering cowardice in the face of personal danger. Complementing the film’s personal conflict is the existential crisis of modernity subsuming the past, embodied by the ageing Frank Town’s (Stewart) fear that he has passed his prime as a pilot. The all – consuming desert provides a fitting metaphor for the relentless march of time and its casualties, with Frank caught between the guilt of his diminished abilities with his suspicion of the modern ‘push-button world’ of Dorfmann.
Intriguingly, this theme is echoed in the film’s own release: coming at the end of the dominance of the Hollywood studio system, its aging cast and classic, boys’ own adventure sensibilities feel somewhat out of kilter with the more cynical times ahead. With its nuanced characters, hard edge, and the flawless execution of its premise, Aldrich’s film was bafflingly under appreciated in its day. But for anyone who has ever enjoyed the vicarious pleasures of perilous adventure and audacious survival, The Flight of the Phoenix will forever be one for the ages.