American Idiosyncrasies On An International Stage. Robert Aldrich’s The Flight Of The Phoenix.
As luck would have it I’m writing this piece on an unseasonably warm September afternoon. Robert Aldrich’s epic outdoor chamber piece is in many ways the original failed blockbuster, making this a doubly-appropriate time to look back at the picture, given the summer of cinema that we’ve just had to play witness to.
A prototype for the disaster movie that would go on to dominate the populist cinema of the pre-Star Wars 1970s, The Flight Of The Phoenix bears many of the hallmarks of the genre: a star-studded cast from across the world; a high-concept plot; a setting that allows for spectacular visuals. However, the contemporary response was moot, and while the film has been fondly remembered in some cinephile quarters (a remembrance aided and abetted by a 2004 remake) it’s at best a favoured curio versus a bona-fide beloved masterpiece.
It’s a beautiful looking piece of work, though given the setting (Arizona doubling for the Sahara) it would be tough to result in otherwise. Sweat glistens from every pore of the movie. Unfortunately the images captured serve to represent a film that is tonally all over the place. As the plane takes flights in the film’s cold-opening one can’t help but think of David Lean and Lawrence Of Arabia thanks to the growing overture that accompanies the sights, before the prologue gives way to a series of dramatic credits that are delivered with such urgency that the whole thing veers on parody. This section of the film closes with the director’s own son being “killed” during the emergency landing, a punchline of sorts, I guess. Aldrich was an idiosyncratic filmmaker, one only needs to spend one hundred and six minutes with Kiss Me Deadly to know this, but it’s impressive nonetheless to see such a quirky vision play out on as grand a scale as that bestowed upon The Flight Of The Phoenix.
An international cast comprised of French, German, Italian, British and American actors thrive some great character roles. Jimmy Stewart leads as a grizzled flight vet, with support from a Richard Attenborough saddled with far more depth than one would ordinarily expect of such a role, while the likes of Christian Marquand, Ernest Borgnine and Peter Finch all deliver memorably in their roles. The highlight though is Hardy Kruger, who was also excellent in Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays And Cybele, as the enigmatic and unusual plane designer at the centre of the film’s grand plan. Somewhat surprisingly, given the rich cultural differences represented in each of the key players own backgrounds The Flight Of The Phoenix is relatively unconcerned, politically speaking (although even the simple mention of ‘Benghazi’ brings with it its own associations in 2016). Instead, Aldrich chooses to focus upon the response and frailty of man when faced with such testing circumstances. Delirium soon sets in and by the time the plane engine finally restarts they’re practically worshipping the thing. Men fall to their knees, tears down their face. One even grips a Rosemary chain. Though the picture’s ultimate conclusion unfortunately undoes a lot of the great work in this area, with comedy reigning, for a section of it’s unwieldy running time The Flight Of The Phoenix remains a surprisingly affecting piece of Hollywood pathos.