The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
Gender representation in movies is a thorny issue at present. Certainly all male ensemble casts are a rarity these days. 12 Angry Men and John Carpenter's The Thing are two examples that spring to mind but by and large Hollywood still favours broad gender representation (if not equal status) for reasons of pure box office. However the all male cast of The Flight of the Phoenix simply reflects that nature of the oil industry at the time of filming and is not in any way a political statement. The absence of any romantic sub plot or any kind of sexual dynamics, allows the narrative to focus clearly on the theme of survival along and the psychological and emotional side effects.
Veteran pilot Frank Towns (James Stewart) and navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) are flying a beaten up old transport from Jaghbub to Benghazi in Libya. On board are a motley group of oil workers and other assorted passengers. After encountering a sudden sandstorm the plane is forced to ditch in the desert. After an aborted attempt by some of the survivors to march to the nearest habitation, it soon becomes apparent that the food and water will only last a fortnight. With hope running out and petty squabbles increasing, the survivors must decide whether to pull together of fall apart.
Post war prejudice against the German plays an integral part in the Robert Aldrich' The Flight of the Phoenix. It was still a common mindset during the sixties, especially among those who had served. Therefore when Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger) proposes to cannibalise the crashed Fairchild C-82 and build another plane to escape from the Sahara desert, it is met with scepticism among his fellow survivors. This is compounded by his cold scientific manner and logical thought process. He immediately chafes with Towns, a proud and old school flyer, who objects to his notion that the other men are simply a work force of expendable assets. The script by Lukas Heller cleverly never states each characters war record and leaves viewers to make up their own minds about their respective pasts.
Performances in The Flight of the Phoenix are universally outstanding due to the well-defined characters and tight screenplay. Ernest Borgnine excels as a psychologically disturbed foreman as does Ian Bannen as an irascible and sardonic oil worker. Peter Finch and Ronald Fraser play respectively a British Army Captain and a resentful Sargent. Their tenuous relationship quickly disintegrates under pressure, leading to potential murder through wilful neglect. It's all very powerful stuff and director Robert Aldrich makes no attempt to sugar the pill. The survivors skin burns and blisters. One injured man takes his own life in a particular moving scene which is sharply contrasted by Dorfmann's borderline callous indifference. Although not graphic, the movie is honest with its depiction of mental disintegration and death.
Like many other great films it is the little touches that embellish the story telling. Stewart's experience as a real life pilot makes his performance in the cockpit convincing. Attenborough's near hysterical laughter, when he learns Dorfmann's secret starkly depicts a man robbed of hope. The results of the Doctor’s and Captain’s negotiation with the Bedouin have a tragic inevitability about it. Aldrich directs with confidence. The artistic freedom and sensibilities of the times afforded him the opportunity to be honest and not have makes commercial concessions. A criticism I would level at the 2004 remake. The movie also benefits from physical effects rather than contemporary computer graphics, imbuing the arduous construction of the Phoenix with a tangible plausibility.
The Flight of the Phoenix is a movie with perennial themes. However these are enhanced when viewed within the context of the times. Aldrich makes a clear message that in desperate times, co-operation irrespective of personal likes, philosophy and dogma is the only practical option when facing disaster. It also explores the importance of hope and what can happen when that is removed. The movie is also a text book example of character acting and the importance of a strong screenplay. If a movie gets this right then the audience will happily follow the narratives twists and turns. Although its clichéd, they simply don't make them like this anymore. I think The Martian is the nearest I’ve seen to anything like The Flight of the Phoenix. It’s not because contemporary Hollywood lacks the talent. It is more of a case of that they lack the will.