This aeroplane is flying across the Sahara, carrying workers and visitors to the area who work there in various capacities, often in the oil fields or the armed forces. It is remarked upon that the pilot, Frank Towns (James Stewart) looks almost as clapped out as his aircraft, and as he takes the journey through the blue skies he wonders if it is up to the job since every time he flies it there seems to be something new wrong with it. His companion in the cockpit is Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough), whose concern is growing when he notices maybe those skies are not a blue as he would like, in fact they are clouded with a fierce sandstorm, and just as Towns is remarking that this might not end well, one of the engines gives out and things look bleak...
The Flight of the Phoenix seemed like a sure bet at the box office in 1965, with its starry cast, basis in a bestselling novel, and a director getting his second wind in his career with Robert Aldrich, but somehow it failed to strike a chord with the public and made no profits. For a film that looked and behaved like a classic blockbuster, this was a baffling disappointment, yet of such efforts are cult movies made, and while this was not even an obvious candidate for that it found a saviour for its reputation when it was sold to the world's television stations and regularly showed up to be rediscovered by generation after generation of movie buffs, to the extent that it was earmarked for a remake almost forty years later.
Naturally, that flopped as well, mainly since the fans of the original had such a fond attachment to it that there was no way a retooled for the twenty-first century incarnation was ever going to find its way into their hearts, and it was yet another desert adventure movie that underperformed significantly at the box office, just like the first movie. But what was it about this that made it so engrossing to its aficionados? It could have been the air of a total lack of compromise, not in the casting (no love interest, barely any women at all), not in the doomed nature of the predicament, and definitely not in the essential problem-solving plot that has such an appeal to a certain type of movie buff.
Yet you didn't need to be a diehard pragmatist to appreciate The Flight of the Phoenix, for there was so much going on here in what on the surface was a simple tale of survival that in spite of its Spartan looks, it was a feast of themes that could be chewed over for decades to come. Take that lack of female company: not all the characters vocalise it, but you can tell this all men together atmosphere is getting on their nerves, only occasionally salved by Connie Francis singing on the radio or dancer Barrie Chase as a briefly witnessed mirage. Or the tension between self-preservation or assisting the group, not as cut and dried as it seems, which sends the men into conflict with the others until they can sort out their interests and decide on the best course of action; however, there is only one person worth listening to, and nobody likes him.
Step forward Heinrich Dorfmann, played by Hardy Krüger at his very best, bringing out resentments at all sides, be that because Towns has a residual grudge against the Germans from the war years, or because he thinks he is allowed special treatment because he is the aircraft designer who can make a new plane out of the wreckage of the old, or simply because of a very modern indication that the future belonged to the technology nerds like him and that made the old time men's men obsolete. You could not entirely say Krüger had the standout performance, as The Flight of the Phoenix could boast one of the great ensemble casts, delivering a wide variety of styles that meshed together rivetingly, with Ernest Borgnine's craziness rubbing shoulders with Dan Duryea's piety, or Ronald Fraser's aggrieved sergeant not taking it anymore from well-intentioned but plain misguided superior officer Peter Finch; Ian Bannen as the joker in the pack and George Kennedy as the conscience were also there, as was Christian Marquand as the voice of reason. It may have been a long film, but it wasted barely a minute, from world-beating title sequence to final will they or won't they denouement, taking on questions of guilt, responsibility and comradeship with equal weight. Music by Frank De Vol.
[Eureka's Blu-ray features a restored print that improves on the DVD, and as extras has a booklet, an entertaining video essay, the trailer, the option of watching the film with music and sound effects only on the soundtrack, and subtitles.]