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Lengthy but satisfying survivor narrative with an all-star cast. 4 Stars

A precursor to the disaster movies that would be box-office gold in the first half of the 1970s, Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix was a bit before its time but is a nevertheless exciting if lengthy thriller that has stood the test of time.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
Released: 15 Dec 1965
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 142 min
Director: Robert Aldrich
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Cast: James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch
Writer(s): Lukas Heller, Trevor Dudley Smith
Plot: After an oil company plane crashes in the Sahara, the survivors are buoyed with hope by one of the passengers, an airplane designer who plans for them to build a flyable plane from the wreckage.
IMDB rating: 7.5
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Criterion
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 2 Hr. 22 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: clear keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 03/22/2022
MSRP: $39.95

The Production: 4/5

A precursor to the disaster movies that would be box-office gold in the first half of the 1970s, Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix was a bit before its time with its all-star international cast working on a survival scenario in a remote part of the Sahara Desert. The film, despite its star-laden cast, was a big disappointment at the box-office, but its entertainment value remains intact: despite a somewhat indulgent amount of running time, the film is as absorbing now as it was in 1965, and it gives its top star James Stewart a chance to play against type as a crotchety antihero who only comes around at the survivors’ most crucial moment.

Traversing the Sahara Desert in a rickety dual-prop plane which has seen better days, experienced oil company pilot Frank Towns (James Stewart) and his navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) encounter an unexpected sandstorm which plays havoc with the faulty equipment and sends the airplane into the dunes far from any foreseeable aid. After five days and with no rescue in sight, a British army captain on board (Peter Finch) decides he’ll attempt to walk out of the desert in a foolhardy attempt to traverse five hundred miles to the coast though his sergeant (Ronald Fraser) feigns a sprained ankle so he can remain behind realizing that such a trek across the desert would be suicide. But also on board is airplane designer Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger) who is convinced he can build a plane to fly them out of the desert from the remnants of the wrecked aircraft. Frank believes the task impossible and finds Dorfmann’s attitude and behavior irritatingly superior and off-putting, but to keep the other craft survivors’ spirits up as their food and water slowly deplete, he joins the others in the seemingly impossible venture.

Adapted from the novel by Elleston Trevor, the screenplay by Lukas Heller methodically establishes its cast of survivor characters (with occasional losses along the way as is typical in these survival scenarios) and proceeds step-by-step through the ups and downs of the new plane’s (risen like a mythical phoenix from the ashes of its predecessor) construction. The bumps along the way aren’t milked for all of the suspense they could have generated: the extremes of daytime heat and nighttime cold that make survival especially difficult (though the Fox makeup team deserves kudos for the very realistic deterioration of everyone’s complexions as the movie runs), someone stealing water from the cistern leaving everyone else with lesser shares to consume, a mysterious band of Arabs whose caravan parks nearby for the night (the 2004 remake of this film does a far better and more dramatic – and violent – job with this incident), and Captain Harris’ stubborn and foolhardy insistence on pursuing his own agendas irrespective of the others’ best interests. Director Robert Aldrich does, however, milk great suspense from a last minute bombshell revelation and from the nail-biting trial of the engine before their fateful takeoff with only seven chances to get it started. He also does an excellent job in staging and filming the scenes where the plane begins to malfunction, break apart, and go down, filmed obviously on a soundstage but disguised beautifully with rear projection, expert models, and fast cutting.

Playing against the usual lovable and agreeable fellows that were his stock in trade, Frank Towns is one of James Stewart’s most unlikeable characters: acerbic to his friend Lew, disgusted by the low quality equipment he’s stuck with, and irascible with all of the passengers and especially condescending to Hardy Kruger’s brainy but smug Heinrich Dorfmann. Kruger walks off with the picture taking command of the construction of the Phoenix while pilot Frank sulks on the sidelines. Richard Attenborough as the alcoholic navigator who constantly plays peacemaker between Frank and Heinrich has some excellent moments in which to shine. Peter Finch as the starchy British captain is in and out of the scenario but does all right with his few moments in the spotlight. So does Ernest Borgnine as Trucker Cobb, drummed out of the outfit and heading home after suffering a nervous breakdown. Ian Bannen earned an Oscar nomination as the jokester Crow, but I’d rather have seen recognition go to Ronald Fraser’s Sergeant Watson who’s had enough of following orders, especially when they’re so foolhardy. Dan Duryea’s quiet, shy Standish (a real change of pace for him), George Kennedy’s big lug Bellamy (who’d get greater chances to show his leadership in the disaster movies of the 1970s), and Christian Marquand’s Dr. Renaud round out a strong, sturdy cast. Yes, that’s Barrie Chase as an Arab dancer in one of Watson’s mirage-like hallucinations, and we get to hear Connie Francis sing the lovely song “Senza Fine” over a transistor radio.

Video: 4.5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio 1.85:1 is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Taken from the camera negative, the image is spotlessly clean, sharp, and most appealing though the color in the first half seems just a little less saturated than later in the movie. Skin tones are excellent throughout, and the grain structure appears intact. Black levels in nighttime scenes are especially inky and impressive. The movie has been divided into 20 chapters.

Audio: 5/5

The LPCM 1.0 sound mix (1.1 Mbps) is very typical of its era. Dialogue has been expertly recorded and has been combined with Frank De Vol’s background score and the most explicit sound effects with great professionalism. Any instances of hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter have been completely eliminated.

Special Features: 3.5/5

Video Analysis (19:17, HD): a 2021 conversation between film historian Alain Silver and director Walter Hill about the career of Robert Aldrich also touches on other personnel in the movie and offers an analysis of the film itself and its disappointing box-office performance.

Donald Dewey Interview (18:08, HD): James Stewart biographer Donald Dewey discusses Stewart’s fabled and highly decorated career as a bomber pilot in World War II and how this experience set him up to play Frank Towns.

Theatrical Trailer (3:09, HD)

Cardboard Phoenix Construction Model

Enclosed Pamphlet: contains cast and crew lists, information on the video and audio transfer, and a critical essay on the movie by critic Gina Telaroli.

Overall: 4/5

Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix has aged quite well in its fifty-seven years of existence. Deftly constructed and beautifully acted by a strong, accomplished cast, The Flight of the Phoenix is a journey well worth taking. Recommended!

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Published by

Matt Hough

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Flashgear

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Great review Matt, and thank you!

I should have it on street date, and really look forward to this Criterion Blu treatment.

It might have been a box office disappointment first run at Christmas time 1965, but by the time I first saw it as a 9 year old a few months later in a packed 25 cent Saturday afternoon matinee with hundreds of screaming kids, it was a thrilling hit! The story and suspense was still compelling enough for an audience of kids to remain quietly patient during this lengthy movie...but boy, oh boy, do I remember the screaming throngs cheering with rapturous delight when the engine finally coughed to life and the 'Phoenix' was tugged by it's half-dead men to an even more thrilling takeoff with Jimmy at the controls!

I love the music by De Vol, and my appreciation for the great cast (Richard Attenborough's brilliant transition from hysterical laughing to heartbreaking crying!) and the movie itself has only grown over the years. Especially so, when discovering the long and thrilling movie history of famed stunt flier Paul Mantz, who died making this film. And then also in discovering Jimmy Stewart's own personal history of dangerous service as a bomber pilot in WW2, and his accomplished career in aviation. I agree that Hardy Krueger nearly steals the movie, one of my favorite films of his, along with the excellent The One Who Got Away...

As an oil and gas technician in the early 1980s, I discovered the story's depicted Calanshio Sand Sea of Libya's Cyrenaica for myself. A brutal place where it was very easy to die. I was thinking of this movie every time we rode a helicopter or fixed-wing over that hellish desert. They sensibly filmed this movie at Yuma Arizona!
 

Radioman970

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One of my favorite movies of all time. I saw it at a young age as well and it always stuck with me. Just watched the dvd in early December. An incredible viewing experience as always. Shortly after it was announced Hardy Krüger had died. He, Stewart and Attenborough make it hard to pause the movie before it's over. Everything flows so well with them.
I definitely felt the dvd needed an upgrade.
 

skylark68

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For some reason I don’t get email notifications for threads on this site so I missed the announcement on the Criterion thread. This is a great review. I agree wholeheartedly with the scores. The other site gave the video a lesser score but I think the color timing is pretty accurate. I wasn’t even born until 11 years after the film was released but I remember seeing it on tv and I had the old dvd and it seems to be about the same to my eyes.
 

Jack P

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I got my copy the other day and thought it looked fine. The extras were okay but not exceptional.

The one thing I have never understood about this film though is how in the world Ian Bannen ever got an Oscar nomination for a part that isn't very significant.
 

Flashgear

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Very happy with this transfer, one of my favorite Jimmy Stewart films.

I agree that the extras are somewhat blah, a disappointment. The discussion between Walter Hill and Allan Silver was (to me) uninspired, although with proper tribute to Robert Aldrich. And biographer Donald Dewey, in discussing Jimmy Stewart's WW2 combat career, offers nothing new and appears unaware of recent research (the excellent 2016 book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the fight for Europe by Robert Matzen. As close as anyone will ever come to the inspiring truth, despite Jimmy's own admirable modesty and desire to not find celebrity fame amidst the terrible reality of bloody sacrifice by many anonymous men).

The essay by critic Gina Telaroli is quite good and insightful.

You do get a card cut-out model of the 'Phoenix', in fact there were two in my case.
 

AnthonyClarke

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I love 'Flight of the Phoenix'. But Jimmy Stewart told me that 'The Spirit of St Louis' was his personal aviation-themed movie from his career. He was quite passionate about it in his typical laid-back way.
 

Nelson Au

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I finally watched the Criterion The Flight of the Phoenix last night. I have the Eureka blu ray and that disc looked just like the earlier US region DVD, which I also own, in terms of color timing. So I am aware of people who thought the Criterion edition altered the color timing the wrong way. I did not do a comparison, I just enjoyed the movie. I did not think the color timing was wrong or bad. I wouldn’t know what the original film was supposed to look like. I thought it looked fine.

The only thing I wondered about was a few scenes looked like there was an abrupt edit, like a scene was cut short or edited out. But I think I felt that way after watching the Eureka version. So maybe it always was like that.