Monday, 5 September 2016

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Robert Aldrich’s classic ‘up the creek without a paddle’ character study gets a UK Blu-ray release courtesy of Eureka.
En route to Bengazi, a cargo plane encounters a sand storm and is forced to crash land in the Sahara desert. The survivors are  mainly a mixture of oilmen and military personnel, as well as pilot Frank Towns (James Stewart) who blames himself for the crash, and his recovering alcoholic associate Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) who may have been responsible for the engine failure in the first place.

They are stuck there. Hope soon begins to fade that they will be found by a search party. At least a hundred miles from anywhere, aeroplane designer Heinrich Dorfmann’s (Hardy Kruger) claims that they can build a new aeroplane from the wreckage of the old are initially met by ridicule and finally with the kind of desperate acceptance you get when the only alternative is certain death. As they begin to take the plane to pieces and construct something new, the water begins to run out, people begin to die, and there are still more surprises to come.

Belonging to a genre that includes Herzog’s AGUIRRE (1972), Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW, and others where a group of people are dropped into a hostile environment and we get to watch how they manage, Aldrich’s film copes with its ‘up the creek without a paddle’ setting (as I like to call this subgenre) by suggesting that sometimes the only way out is to build a new paddle, even if the one person who can be trusted with its design may not necessarily be trustworthy themselves. Making Dorfmann German is a bit of a masterstroke in this respect, and making him blissfully unaware that the source of his experience in design might have implications is genius. 

There’s plenty of other genius on display here as well. A collection of great performances, all working from a screenplay (by Lukas Heller) that allows, with Aldrich’s careful direction, for plenty of character development, meaning that the movie’s 142 minute running time feels nothing like it, and by the time you get to the end you feel absolutely invested in the fate of these characters. Disaster picture, desert movie, patrol film (Aldrich’s favoured term for it, apparently), THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX is more than anything great and complex character film-making.

Eureka’s Blu-ray gives us a 25 minute talking head piece from Sheldon Hall that’s well worth a look. Well worth a read (before the movie if you’ve seen it before, otherwise wait until afterwards) is the little booklet essay by Neil Sinyard that gives you much more background on the film. An essential addition to any film classics library. 

Robert Aldrich's THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX is out on 
Blu-ray on 12th September 2016

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