In 2004, the action adventure film Flight of the Phoenix was released, starring Dennis Quaid and Giovanni Ribisi. For all its inadequacies and its rather lowbrow approach, this movie did what it set out to do: excite, thrill, and pepper the screen with a few good-natured laughs.
All said and done, however, this viewer was disappointed by how embarrassingly short the film fell from its 1965 predecessor, an underrated tour de force starring Jimmy Stewart and Richard Attenborough. This is the true flight. This is the proper Phoenix to be regarded by film history – a film that paradoxically threw romanticism into a corner and beat the living daylights out of it.
As in the 2004 remake, the plot centers on a downed aircraft in the Sahara. Though most of the dozen or so passengers survive the crash landing, they must face the dire elements of starvation, dehydration, and madness. Indeed, no contact can be made beyond the dunes, rations are diminishing, and the men are growing volatile, slipping in and out of reason. Just as hope begins to fade, a member of the party suddenly announces that he is an airplane designer, and he believes the craft can be rebuilt.
Stewart is captivating as Frank Towns, a disenchanted pilot weighed down by his duty to lead the weary survivors. All about him in the sand lay examples of just how fragile the minds of men really are. Hardy Kruger spellbinds in his role as the airplane designer; there is a distance felt between this stoic German figure and the other survivors. It’s reasons (for the most part) go unsaid, but we know them, all the same. Lastly, there is Richard Attenborough, whose reaction at the film’s climax, alone, evoked in this viewer a wild cocktail of emotions – humor, hopelessness, disbelief, and outright horror – that is rarely elicited by a film. Indeed, all three leading cast members offer stellar performances, but the supporting cast should not go without mention, boasting such acting talents as Peter Finch, George Kennedy, and Ernest Borgnine.
This film stands as one of the brightest shining examples we have of action adventure done right. It proves the genre can be an art form. It can rein in all the fantastic elements that comprise it, that make it what it is. Ultimately, we are called to regard these men as men, not the heroes of some illustrious desert voyage. They are painfully mortal and remind us that the mind is perhaps not so strong as we may assume. Anyone ready for a most undervalued classic simply must watch The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).