by David Cornelius
Before he made such tough guy classics as “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Longest Yard,” director Robert Aldrich dropped a bunch of Men’s Men in the middle of Sahara for an adaptation of Elleston Trevor’s novel “The Flight of the Phoenix.” The film is a true Guy Movie classic, something of a disaster flick, something of a survival adventure, all of it packed with a rough and ready cast that includes James Stewart, Ernest Borgnine, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, and Hardy Kruger.If all you know about “Phoenix” is the recent remake, then you have yet to see the story told right. For here’s a movie that raises the tension early and refuses to let loose for a full two and a half hours - the thing just keeps building and building and building and building, pushing toward a climax that’s all the more triumphant because of what comes before.
"A tense, thrilling adventure from a master filmmaker."
The plot, for those unfamiliar with either version, involves a charter plane, one o’ them rickety propeller numbers, getting lost in a sandstorm and crashing in the African desert, hundreds of miles off course. Rescue seems unlikely, and so the survivors - a mish mash of oil workers and British military, plus scrappy pilot Stewart and alcoholic copilot Attenborough - must figure out a plan for survival.
The trick to the film is all in the characters. Screenwriter Lukas Heller (a frequent collaborator of Aldrich’s) translates Trevor’s group of dirty, ugly, ethics-questionable men quite perfectly to the screen, in such a manner that despite a general lack of big action, the movie never loses its grip. We get power struggles, crazed arguments, bad decisions, and, above all else, a slow descent into insanity by all.
The power struggle comes as a triangle: Stewart’s pessimistic pilot, bitter for not being able to keep the plane in the air, is determined to contradict most suggested plans; Finch’s Army captain character becomes unwilling to give up his command position; and a mysterious, disturbingly unemotional German (Kruger) becomes megalomaniacal when he realizes his master plan for survival depends entirely on him - making him the most important man in the group, the only indispensable one.
And so the film progresses into a compelling mixture of power struggle, episodic survival tale, and triumph-of-the-human-spirit saga. It’s a lot for one movie to handle, especially one without any real action set pieces to liven things up. And yet the action is all in the character interaction, and Aldrich’s deft direction and the cast’s superior performances keep this one lively for its entire run.
Where Aldrich goes right is in his trust of his performers to keep the audience glued to the screen. The director here is unafraid to simply let a scene play with little interference. Consider a key sequence late in the movie, in which Stewart and Attenborough engage in a late night chat with Kruger, during which a major revelation is given. Aldrich lets this play quietly, subtly, knowing that the three stars (and the clever writing) are enough to draw one in; no added theatrics are needed.
“Phoenix” is a subtle film all around, with the little touches bringing the most out of the story. We watch as the actors slowly begin appearing with worse and worse blistering on their chapped faces; with no special attention made in dialogue or action, we realize how bad things are getting. Here’s a film that says so much with just an actor’s look, or a lingering camera.
The film finally loses its subtle nature during its stirring climax, which explodes with emotion at just the right time. It’s here the story’s allowed to let loose; the movie’s tone matches the characters’, after all. And no matter how predictable the final scenes are, it makes no difference in terms of the movie’s effectiveness. The final sequence in “Phoenix,” despite its being the only real way the story could possibly play out, remains a master stroke, one of the most thrilling moments in Guy Movie history.“Phoenix” is not often mentioned when running down Stewart’s best works, but that’s blame aimed more at the actor’s impressive flexography, which makes it easy to overlook a title or two. And yet this is a grand adventure that deserves to be listed with all those other unforgettable Jimmy Stewart classics. It also demands to be named an essential Guy Movie, right next to Aldrich’s follow-up effort, “The Dirty Dozen.” Granted, this is a different kind of action movie, but it’s all the better for it.
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originally posted: 03/01/05 14:06:12