The Flight of the Phoenix
One type of film that has always fascinated me is when a reasonable group of people are placed in the most unreasonable of circumstances. Perhaps one of the best of this genre is the Flight of the Phoenix. An old cargo plane carrying a few military men and oil rig workers is forced 130 miles off course and crashes in the desert. This simple situation sets the stage for one of the best drama ever presented on the American screen. Right from the start there is a fragmentation of the survivors. It seems that everyone has their own idea as to the best course of action. The main problem is each man carries more emotional baggage then the largest plane could ever bare. Frank Towns (James Stewart) is the pilot, at the tail end of his career he is almost as broken down as the planes he flies. Riddled with guilt he finds it difficult to make the life or death decisions that he encounters. Towns wants to take the course of least resistance while British military officer Captain Harris (Peter Finch) demands a small expeditionary force ventures out to proactively find help. At the third corner of this triangle of proposed options is Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger), a German aeronautical designer with an outlandish plan, to build a new plane from the wreckage of the crash. While many films would be able to present an excellent storyline centered only on these characters this film soars to new heights with the introduction of the characters of Lew Moran (Sir Richard Attenborough). He is the catalyst that managers to hold the group together, bringing some modicum of balance to the strong wills, grief and despair found among this rag tag group of men. A character such as this is required considering the motif of the film. There is little in the way of the action driven sequences most audiences demand in today’s film market. Most of the film is presented in the strong, emotionally charged dialogue and without the influence of Lew the danger would have been degrading the drama into a shouting match. Instead this character not only holds the men together he is the adhesive for the whole plot.
With any film casting is the most important aspect of production. With a film like this that depends on the character arcs the cast has to be nothing less than the absolute best to make the movie work. Fortunately for us this lofty goal was exceeded. Stewart remains one of the best American actors ever to grace the sliver screen. Here is a man that could put the egos that drive so many in his profession aside and take on a very flawed character. His presentation of Towes is a man frozen with self doubt, regret and guilt. It takes a powerful and confident actor to present such a human character so realistically. There is nothing that can be said about Sir Richard to do him justice. Here is a man that has excelled in every aspect of his craft. He portrays Lew as a stuttering man, seemingly one of the weakest among the group yet there is an inner strength that holds everything together. With a resume like this actor has it is difficult to pick a favorite role but this one is at the top of my list. One of the most surprising performances is that of Kruger as the precise, demanding Dorfmann. His character is presented as the know-it-all, the type of man that is sure is superior intellect will save everyone. While he is hated by all they cast their lots with him. With so many strong performances you would think they step on each other. Just the opposite happens; they blend together like the ingredients of a fine meal, each flavor enhancing the overall presentation.
When looking at the list of films directed by Robert Aldrich the only similarity is not genre but great cinema. Which flicks like ‘The Dirty Dozen", "The Killing of Sister George" and "Twilight’s Last Gleaming" to his credit he has a track record of not disappointing the audience. His style is such that he is a strong presence as a director tempered by permitting the excellent cast the freedom to explore their characters. Aldrich is a master at building a picture rich in detail with each frame of the film. Many may have seen this film on cable. This is a shame. Without the full aspect ratio you loose not only a large percentage of the picture, you loose much of the film’s stunning visual impact. As the film progresses you see the very skin of the actors almost disintegrating, breaking down with a visual representation of the emotional breakdown the men are experiencing. Aldrich moves the action between the vast loneliness of the desert surround the men to the cramped, claustrophobic interior shots in the make shift shelter of the plane’s hull. This juxtaposition between loneness and extremely cramped quarters draws the audience into the predicament of the characters.
For those of us that have seen this film on cable the DVD presentation will be like seeing the film anew for the first time. Considering the film is almost forty years old the video is remarkably clean. Sure there are some specks, white flashes and nicks but overall the new 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is excellent. The details are precise, each bead of sweat, the frayed cloth of their clothing all visible. The color palette is well resented ad balanced. Take a look at how true the flesh tones are represented, the contrast between the gray sand and the blue sky is completely realistic and consistent. The audio is presented both in the original mono and remastered stereo soundtracks. Both are somewhat clipped, the high and low ends of the frequencies of the musical score. I did find the dialogue was much clearer with the mono soundtrack. You may want to select this track and push the signal through your Prologic theater mode for the best reproduction of how this film was originally presented. The disc does fail in only one aspect; some extras would have been greatly appreciated. There is only a trailer presented here. Some vintage behind the scenes footage and a commentary track would have made this close to the perfect DVD. Still for those of you that want a great piece of American film this is a must have for your collection. The direction and performances make up for the lack of technical tricks many expect with DVDs. Get this one for the film and enjoy it.