To all extents and purposes, the glorious career of James Stewart came to its conclusion on the desert plains of The Flight of the Phoenix. By that I mean it was his last great part in a major role in a big picture. He was 56 years old when the film was made and though he lived another 33 years there would be no great roles or anything approaching On Golden Pond (1981) which served his great friend Henry Ford so well in old age and garnered him an Oscar to boot.
If Stewart was the undoubted star of the movie he had one hell of a cast supporting him. Behind the camera was the director Robert Aldrich; with him on screen from the Brit school of stiff-upperlippers were such luminaries as Richard (tonight, darling, I'm going to be an alcoholic navigator and tomorrow I shall direct Gandhi - it's a means to an end and it will lead my roller one day entering the pearly gates of Stamford Bridge) Attenborough, Peter Finch (and though from 10 to 27 years of age he lived in Australia he was born in Blighty and always looked bemused cos he had once slept with Vivien Leigh and gone to bed with Scarlett O'Hara and woken up with Blanche DuBois), Ian Bannen (why was he never a bigger star?) and Ronald Fraser (why wasn't he as funny as his face would suggest?); European accents were provided by Christian Marquand and Hardy Kruger; American second leaguers but as solid a support as their waistlines were flabby were Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy; and Dan Duryea.
The Stewart character is Frank Towns, as grizzled as the most grizzled of bears, as old school a pilot as old school can get, flying a group of men from a Saharian oil field to civilization. Attenborough (in his 1960s I'm not good looking or American enough to headline this damn movie but I'm sure as hell going to do solid until solid is my middle name phase) plays the alcoholic navigator Moran who makes a plotting error which means the battered plane is 100 miles off course and crashes in the desert. Most of the film is about how the hell the crash victims are going to get out of the desert that it so dry it literally made this viewer gasp for water.
Relationships form but are eclipsed and almost forgotten about by the major conflict between Towns and the Kruger character Dorfmann, a man who is a designer and who comes up with the seemingly impossible and fantastic plan to make a new plane from the remnants of the crashed one. The men work hard building the new plane, finding strength to go on with the thought that survival is a feasible alternative to dying in the deset, but Dorfmann becomes increasingly and tyrannically 'German' (maybe it's just me but I do think the director cynically plays on the German sounding accent of Dorfmann to make the audience distrust him that much more so that we side with the Stewart character as he's 'American' and its American money funding this movie lest we forget! Hell, if it rained in that desert it would rain dollars!). Towns is bitter about losing his authority to the boffin and foreign Dorfmann. It is left to the very English voice of Attenborough to mediate between the two men.
On the eve of the flight it transpires that Dorfmann has never actually build a plane; indeed, he has only ever built model ones. If we ever doubted that an American producer (Aldrich also) and American company were not right to at least have doubts on relying on anyone east of New York (Britain excluded) then we know now!
In spite of everything Towns gets the aircraft airborne and the survivors to safety. The film ends with an uneasy coexistence between the two men. It's as if the American producer and company had doubts that such an existence could be genuine, or maybe that's just me reading too much into the film.
The first cast read-through was on location in Yuma, Arizona. To begin with there was wariness between Stewart and his European counterparts. Any thoughts that they would try and out-act him were soon dispelled and they got along well.
The film had tradegy in its making. The stuntman Paul Mantz was killed during the filming of the climatic takeoff sequence. A 2nd stuntman suffered a broken hip in the same accident.
Stewart grabbed his last great role with both hands and excelled, with a sensitivity and exquisite vulnerability behind the grizzled facade that perfectly captured a man who knew he was of a time past, gone, lost forever, replaced by the boffins and computer geeks of a world he would never understand. In other words a middle-aged man losing control of the world around him to youth arrogantly and without thought trampling over all the values he had held dear in his life. It is a superb performance and while the rest of the ensemble cast are good, it is Jimmy Stewart's performance which stays in the mind.
Strangely, The Flight of the Phoenix did anything but fly at the box office. To me, that says more about the fee-paying public of the time than the film itself for the movie is a great watch, especially when you compare it to the empty and risible 2004 remake. But through TV audiences ever since it has found its niche, leaving generation upon generation ever since enthralled and sweating in sympathy in the Saharian desert for 2 hours or more on a sunday afternoon in homes across the planet.
While making the film Kruger and Stewart, who were both pilots in real life (in Stewart's case a pilot on 2nd World War bombing raids in Germany and you don't get more 'real' than that!), discussed whether anyone could fly the Phoenix aircraft in real life. Both concluded that it could be flown with the use of a ramp.
Neither though would have volunteered to pilot such a craft!
© Paul Page (2007).
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