The Flight of The Phoenix – Sean Derbyshire

Directed by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane) and released in 1965, ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’ is a forgotten gem from the golden age of cinema. It tells the tale of a group of men, crash landed and stranded in the Sahara, whom overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to survive. It is a truly uplifting story, based on the Novel by Trevor Dudley Smith, and gloriously realised through intense physical filmmaking in an era before digital effects and elaborate technological advances saturated the industry. The film is, in a word, magnificent.

Aldrich’s direction, together with the screenplay by Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane) tells of a gruelling struggle between man and the elements. The themes of this film delve deep into the human instinct to survive, while also touching on the concepts of bigotry and xenophobia in a very intimate and personal way, as hope becomes as scarce as water in the desert. Aldrich manages to maintain tension, while still delivering varying scales of conflict and even very organic moments of comedy that keep the audience invested until the very end.

Heller’s script is brilliant, creating complex characters and exploring their struggle against their environment and each other, with cutting dialogue that never ceases to grip the audience in every interaction on screen. Every character has a unique development arc, as very different men are forced to work together on a seemingly impossible task in order to escape their predicament. The film evokes a huge range of emotions that is rarely accomplished so well by movies.

As with many films of the mid 20th Century, the audience’s mood and tension is almost entirely dictated and cleverly controlled by the musical score, composed by Frank De Vol (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen). The usual musical tropes, such as the harsh discords to shock and frighten, the gentle harps to create feelings of dreaming, hallucinations and madness and the triumphant booming orchestral flairs to instil a sense of victory grip the heart of the viewer and manipulate how fast it beats for every single scene.

The cinematography (or photography as it once was referred to) is used very strategically throughout, particularly when the plane flies, as the camera gives us an idea of movement and angles, as well as the sense of panic as it rapidly descends. The film uses a great deal of well cut close-up shots, allowing us to see very closely the emotional strain exerted on these characters by their situation and each other; the wide shots of the desert lend scope to the scenario, demonstrating just how lost and alone these men are.

The performances in this film are outstanding; it is impossible not to become invested in each and every character as they each face their own struggles. James Stewart (Vertigo, It’s a Wonderful Life) gives a fantastic performance as the stoic pilot ‘Frank Towns’, as he tries to do what he can to help everyone escape, while inwardly dealing with his feelings of responsibility for their predicament. Hardy Krüger (Barry Lindon, Hatari) is equally captivating as the German engineer ‘Heinrich Dorfmann’, whom in spite of the others’ mistrust and discrimination still uses his ingenuity to devise a plan for their rescue. Smaller, less integral parts, are still lent equal gravity through brilliant performances, such as Ernest Borgnine’s simple but kind-hearted ‘Trucker Cobb’, or Ian Bannen’s bigoted, wise-cracking ‘Crow.’ The stand out performance, however, is given by late Richard Attenborough (Jurassic Park, The Great Escape) as the navigator ‘Lew Moran.’ Attenborough creates a truly vulnerable and yet courageous character, whose fierce loyalty and belief in his captain endears us to him throughout the whole film.

To summarise, this is not a film about heroes. This is a film about humans struggling to survive, and realising that the only way to do that is working together. The film is a marvellous representation of man’s conflict with himself and his environment and its triumphant climax will leave you smiling from ear to ear; a great film!

Reviewed by Sean Derbyshire

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