The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

If you're a certain age you'll remember The Flight of the Phoenix as one of those TV staples which would screen regularly on BBC2 at six o'clock on weeknights, along with Viva Max and Five Fingers and any number of other films which are classics by wistful association. In some alternate universe FOTP might have inspired me to become an engineer, but in the universe that was a secondary modern in West Belfast, such trades were reserved for those who routinely failed at all academic subjects. Sadly I was one of those schoolboys who made a habit of scraping a pass and so was deemed academically inclined and therefore doomed to an arts degree (Politics & English) and a lifetime of penury. This was not my choice. I can't watch the film now without a compelling sense of regret.

Flight of the Phoenix was adapted from a novel by Elleston Trevor. I came to the novel after seeing the film, and it proved to be a disappointing and trying read. I think this is one instance where the film is a marked improvement over the original source material. The plot is almost the same: Almost. Having crashed their plane in the middle of the Sahara desert, pilot, navigator and passengers are driven to build a new plane from the wreckage of the old by a German engineer, who it turns out knows nothing very much about real aeroplanes. Along the way their party is whittled down by tragedy and violence to as many as their fledgling craft will carry. The cast is an international one - a mixed bag of American stars at the tail-end of their careers (James Stewart, Dan Duryea and Ernest Borgnine), British stalwarts (Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Ronald Fraser), and Hardy Kruger as the German. The difference between book and film is that Kruger's character is missing from the book; there is no officious German winning the war after the event; no German economic miracle in the desert. So the book does not have the ironies which make the film work so well in the hands of Hardy Kruger, who is something of a revelation in the role of Dorfmann. As thirst overtakes the party his reflective spectacles and jerky, mechanical gait seem to be redolent of a determinism not to be found on a film set but rather in a school-room. Which is no doubt why I found his performance so winning. I was duped too - and the final reveal of his qualifications did not have me laugh maniacally like Attenborough, but frown gently into the past at what might not have been.

The film still screens on British TV to this day, most recently on Film Four. This should be neither here nor there as I have long since bought the DVD, but there is something about a broadcast version of Flight of the Phoenix (no matter how badly edited) that makes me sit down to watch it again and again: it's one of those real-time events which is always for the first time. And I admit to having fallen for the love theme from the film, a mid-60s song that returns me to the mid-80s, which is perhaps typical of a plane that goes down in the desert. I never did get to where I was going.


  1. I too fell in love with this one at an early age, at least partly because the only romantic interest took place between a mirage and a rubber-faced army sergeant and was over-with in a couple of minutes. (A similar healthy perspective on romance also helped endear me to Aldrich's The Longest Yard). I also read the book after seeing the film, and for my part rather enjoyed it, despite the way the characters are changed.

    In fact, in a geeky sort of way it's rather interesting to see how they've been shuffled about. There is a German character in the book (severely injured on landing, which caused me a double-take when I read it - how was he going to design a plane from that position, and wasn't he a bit young?), but in the film he becomes an Italian named Gabriele, whose dying wife is taken from an American called Loomis who appears in the book but not in the film. Loomis' death at the hands of bandits is given to the doctor, who appears in the film but not in the book. The Dorfmann character is called Stringer, and the book's Albert Crow is too pleasant-natured either to be called Ratbags or to taunt a man about his nationality - which, as you observe, means that one of the film's most interesting issues (besides some of its funniest dialogue) doesn't appear.

    I was also fond of the main title sequence, which had more names above the title than almost any film I'd seen up to then, and also conveniently matched the actors' names to their characters with those striking freeze-frames.

  2. haha, I might have known this would be one of yours too. I must admit that upon opening the book and realising the differences I read it at arm's length and with some scepticism. I guess this was because the film had become part of my own personal folklore and I could not or would not tolerate any departure. For that reason I haven't watched the remake. One of my favourite moments is James Stewart's miserable attempt to ingratiate himself with Dorffman at the end of the film; whereupon Dorffman rebukes him with metres, a reference, I presume, to Stewart's earlier log comment that the little men with slide rules will inherit the earth.

  3. I think the last encounter between Towns and Dorfmann is a bit friendlier than that. Each of them has not only saved the other's life - since neither could have flown without the other - but helped fulfil his dream as well: Towns is able to "take real pride in just getting there" having flown by the seat of his pants, and Dorfmann has proved himself as a "real" plane designer.

    I have very little truck with remakes in general, and I believe the remake of this one is set in the present day, which rules out the most interesting aspect of Towns' character - the fact that he's old enough to remember, if not the Wright brothers, then certainly Lindbergh and perhaps Alcock and Brown. His initial nostalgia for the good old days gets a hard come-down when the crash reminds him exactly why "you took real pride in just getting there" - namely because pilot error or bad luck would very likely get people killed. Towns does score over Dorfmann at the end, when his hands-on instincts lead him to judge (correctly but against all slide-rule logic) that he needs to use one of the precious starter cartridges to clear the pipes. Which leads to one of my favourite touches, common to book and film - the engine starts on the penultimate try, not on the very last.

  4. Yes, perhaps I should have said gently rebuked as it is a good-natured if awkward exchange. Though, as you say, that it's possible at all is due to the use of a starter cartridge to clear the engine, a clear and correct decision by Towns which places both men on an equal footing by the end.

    Sadly I have since sold my copy of the book on ebay, for the princely sum of 99p, so I can't go back over it at the moment.

  5. I respectfully disagree with a few remarks above. I think the book is much better, although both are good. I am also surprised by your comment that Dorfmann's character didn't appear in the book. Of course he did, only it was Stringer, an officious Englishman instead of an officious German. You're right about the German-English animosity being absent in the book, although in the book the injured man was German (Otto Kepel) while in the movie he was Italian (Gabriele). I was most disappointed in Borgnine's portrayal of Cobb. He acted like a retarded child, not an adult having a nervous breakdown as in the book. Some of the other acting was ham-handed, too. Generally speaking, I find modern movies have better acting, better production values and special effects, but worse writing, putting too much emphasis on violence, explosions, effects, sex, etc. at the expense of plot. I haven't watched the remake, but I have checked it out from the library and intend to to do that in the next few days.