A few minutes into Robert Aldrich’s epic 1965 disaster film The Flight of the Phoenix, we find ourselves in the cockpit of an airplane with James Stewart’s veteran pilot, Frank Towns, who is talking about the fun and adventure of flying as it used to be, before the new world of science and standardization took over. He set off for Benghazi, Libya, in a visibly ramshackle aircraft full of oil-company workers, a couple of military men, and—fortuitously—crates of energy-filled pitted dates. As the aircraft glides over blankets of sand, Towns remembers aloud the days when the pride of flying was in “just getting there.” But the smorgasbord of international masculinity he is piloting won’t be getting anywhere anytime soon. The claustrophobic, plane-bound opening culminates in a violent crash landing smack-dab in the middle of nowhere.
Just before the plane hits, the opening credits appear, accompanied by freeze-frames of the characters as each in his own way faces the jarring descent of the aircraft into an unending and unrelenting desert. Richard Attenborough plays Lew Moran, Towns’s alcoholic British navigator, whose failure to check the radio before takeoff proves disastrous. Among the pair’s passengers are the upright Captain Harris (Peter Finch) of the British Army and his sergeant, Watson (Ronald Fraser); Dr. Renaud (Christian Marquand), a French physician; and Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger), a West German engineer. The oilmen onboard include Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine), an American foreman clearly in the throes of a mental-health crisis; his countrymen Standish (Dan Duryea), Bill (William Aldrich), and Bellamy (George Kennedy), the company accountant; Crow (Ian Bannen), a brash Scotsman; Carlos (Alex Montoya), and his pet monkey, from Mexico; Gabriele (Gabriele Tinti), from Italy; and the mandolin-playing Tasso (the Greek-born Peter Bravos). Bill and Tasso won’t survive the crash. Among the rest, the valences of masculinity on display will give rise to tensions and outright hostility before resolving into two dominant opposed outlooks, as represented by Towns—with his penchant for the flawed, the unpredictable, and the ad hoc—and Dorfmann, whose own personal operating procedure is rooted in carefully crafted formulas.
Aldrich was prolific when it came to genre—he made war films, westerns, noirs, melodramas, comedies, and more. But he returned to a particular kind of situation time and again: the struggle of an individual or a group of people to survive and to maintain their sense of themselves within wildly inhospitable circumstances, whether natural or created by other humans. As the director once described the characters he was drawn to, they “find their own integrity in doing what they do the way they do it, even if it causes their own deaths.”
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