Back when I was a kid, this movie used to play on the Saturday afternoon movie about every third week and, being a boy with a jones for all things aviation, I ate it up. Of course, back then I simply got off on the idea of turning a crashed airplane into a new smaller airplane. As I got older, I came to appreciate the movie for what it was: a deeply insightful drama about men under crisis, couched in the format of an action adventure.
Frank Towns (Jimmy Stewart) is somewhat broken down veteran pilot flying an equally broken-down C-82 cargo plane out of a oil field in the Sahara Desert, with a handful of passengers bound for Benghazi. His navigator, Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough), managed to crawl out of the bottle long enough to make the flight. After they’re airborne, they discover that their radio is out, but that’s the least of their problems. There is a massive sandstorm closing in on them. Unable to fly over it, their engines get clogged with sand and the plane crashes in the desert, more than a hundred miles of course, killing two men and critically injuring another.
With maybe eleven days of water and no radio, there is little hope that they will be found by a search plane in time to be saved. Harris, a by-the-book British Army officer (Peter Finch), wants to set off for the nearest city, despite pleas from Towns and Moran that it would be suicidal. His malingering sergeant, Watson (Ronald Fraser), fakes an injury to avoid going with him. Cobb, a childlike man being recalled by the oil company for emotional problems (Ernest Borgnine), wants to go in his place but no one will let him, so he goes off on his own. Heinrich, an arrogant German man (Hardy Krüger) who was visiting his brother, keeps to himself, spending his time inspecting the wreck.
After several days, Heinrich proposes a radical solution, namely scavenging the wreck to build a flyable aircraft out of the remaining engine boom. Towns thinks the idea is insane and, even if the idea were feasible, the survivors are already weakened by dehydration and will only get weaker. When Heinrich reveals that he designs aircraft for a living, however, the others begin to back his idea, forcing Towns to go along with. This sets up a battle of wills as, for the plan to work, Heinrich must be in charge but Towns refuses to give up his authority as pilot.
With a first-class cast and a taut script, this movie gradually, deliberately builds tension and never lags over its two-and-a-quarter-hour running time. Despite its high-concept adventure premise, this story could almost be executed as a stage play, as it’s the constantly shifting relationships between the characters and their dynamics that drive the story, not any immediate physical danger beyond the slow death of dehydration in a trackless desert.
Despite its age and the occasionally suspect special effects that go along with being more than forty years old, The Flight of Phoenix is a film that stands up to repeated viewings, both by ten-year-old adventure seekers and the more critical adults they grow up to be.