One of the most startling twists of fate you have ever experienced!
Little by little, as the DVD format grows older, studios are beginning to open up their vaults and release more worthwhile catalogue titles. While hardly a classic, 1965's The Flight of the Phoenix, directed by Robert Aldrich (What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen), and starring James Stewart (Destry Rides Again), offers a number of pleasures and a truly fascinating performance by Mr. Stewart.
As released by Fox, The Flight of the Phoenix is pretty bare bones, and to add insult to injury doesn't offer up the strongest video and sound. Still, for a disc that is priced under $10.00, I don't know how much I can complain.
Facts of the Case
Frank Towns (James Stewart) is a pilot for an oil company whose plane crashes 130 miles off course in the Sahara Desert. After several days of waiting and hoping, it becomes clear that rescue is not an option. After all attempts to take matters into their own hands fail, and as all hope begins to die, Towns reluctantly agrees to go ahead with aviation designer Heinrich Dorfman's (Hardy Kruger, Barry Lyndon) mad plan to build a new plane by cannibalizing parts of the old one. So the question quickly becomes what is going to kill these men first—the other survivors, the desert, or the plane they are attempting to construct?
Long one of Hollywood's most reliable and beloved leading men, by 1965 Jimmy Stewart was winding down. A quick glance at the Internet Movie Database will show several more leading film roles, not to mention the work he would do on TV, but with The Flight of the Phoenix, Stewart was pushing his talent in a new direction for the final time. His performance as Frank Towns is that of a bitter man, a man that the times have left behind, a man without hope. Stewart makes Towns a man with deep-rooted demons and a distinct edge. Everyone else in the cast takes their cue from and builds off this edge. One of the things that I always liked about James Stewart and his method of performance was the economy he used when creating characters. Everything simmers beneath the surface so that when fury does spring forward, it always looked to be coming from a natural place. It is his economical skill, this spareness, that always gave his work a quiet and lasting power. While many other leading men of his generation may have relied more on being "stars" than being actors, Stewart never forgot that the character came first.
For the film, director Robert Aldrich made excellent use of some of the best character actors from the period. Ernest Borgnine (The Devil's Rain) hits all the right notes as insane Trucker Cobb, while George "I've was in every damn version of Airplane!" Kennedy turns in his usual solid performance. As Stewart's right hand, Richard Attenborough is especially good, performing with a nuanced and detailed flair. Also worth mentioning are Peter Finch (Network) as Captain Harris and Ronald Fraser (The Wild Geese) as Sergeant Watson. Finch comes off as friendly, if a little pompous, while Fraser's character understands he is probably going to die and takes the opportunity for the rebellion he has always dreamed of. It is a complex and realistic relationship and one that adds to the depth of the film. Still, Hardy Kruger's performance is what really makes the film work. As the designer Heinrich Dorfman, he represents everything Frank Towns seems to be against. Impossible to talk to and infuriating to be around, he is still the one that provides the survivors with their only glimmer of hope. Kruger keeps his character surface level, never really dipping beneath the petulant air of superiority, so that when the big reveal of his character's secret is exposed, it truly comes as a surprise. It appears to be a simple performance but one full of richness and stands as the counterpoint to the work done by James Stewart.
For The Flight of the Phoenix, Jimmy Stewart found a good match in director Aldrich. If Stewart conveyed a minimalist approach to Frank Towns, then Robert Aldrich brought a terseness to the proceedings that surrounded him. Moving right into the story, Aldrich quickly introduces his players and then launches into the disaster that binds them together. The plane crash is a beautifully edited piece of filmmaking that works the credits in while building a real sense of panic. This is also done with a generous helping of black humor—Aldrich no sooner introduces his cast than he kills off a couple of them a minute or two later.
Matching Stewart's sense of economy, it is to Aldrich's credit that at a running time of 149 minutes, The Flight of the Phoenix never drags or feels long. This feat is made even more impressive by the fact that no one in the cast, save Peter Finch's military man, is even close to being likable in the traditional Hollywood sense. Rather, almost everyone stranded together bickers with one another or shows outright hostility toward other members. Aldrich and his writer Lukas Heller's (Too Late the Hero) refusal for any member of the cast to be sympathetic or likable gives The Flight of the Phoenix a great deal of its power. Since the audience is unable root for any one cast member, the situation they are placed in takes paramount importance. In a film where no one character can be labeled "the hero," any character can and sometimes does, die. By placing the entire cast in peril, even the perceived "leads," Aldrich is able to create situations where it is clear all bets are off, and in the process the movie becomes the rarest of Hollywood action thrillers—one where it is unclear what is going to happen next.
From a production standpoint, Aldrich was one of those directors who found a comfort level with people and utilized these same people with each new project. That level of ease is evident in just how natural everything in The Flight of the Phoenix feels, from the tight editing of Michael Luciano to the cinematography of Joseph Biroc and most especially with the art direction of William Glasgow. Every wave of heat and every drop of sweat leaves no doubt how desperate the situation is for the characters. The group seemed to work with the rarest of creative shorthand and the sum of all those experiences is evident in every frame of this movie. All in all, a solid effort is turned in by his regular team and the movie benefits greatly from their work.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is one of those reviews that reads, "Movie, good. Disc, eh." Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the original aspect ration of 1.85:1 is preserved and it is a decent transfer with some flaws. First off, colors seem to veer back and forth between being properly saturated, oversaturated, and undersaturated. Flesh tones are inconsistent and sometimes appear washed out, though detail is fairly strong. While the transfer sometimes has problems with all the sand, black levels appear solid and there's little in the way of shimmer. While generally strong, there are also source material problems. Some sections look faded and worn out while there is also some dirt and nicks present. As is usual with films from the period, special effects and rear projection are painfully noticeable, adding to the concerns. It seems to me that with a little restoration, we could have been treated to a much better looking Phoenix.
If the picture had some issues, then the sound has serious problems. Given the choice of a 2.0 stereo mix and a 1.0 mono option, I'd have to go with the 1.0. Both have severe range limitations, but the mono is cleaner and not as muddled as the stereo. Dialogue is not well integrated and caused me on a couple of occasions to go back and increase the volume. Frank De Vol's score does not help matters. In typical 1960s fashion, The Flight of the Phoenix is over-scored, almost to the point of parody. In a film where restraint and economy are positives, the music is often quite jarring. Conditions are further complicated when the music overpowers not only the tone of the film but also the words of the actors. Again, with a little time and money spent on restoration and remixing, this disc could have been a much more enjoyable experience.
Extras? We don't need no stinking extras, although it would have been nice. How many times do reviewers have to tell the studios that theatrical trailers, even those in Spanish and Portuguese, are not special features? Plus, if you think there are some issues with video presentation of the movie, try watching the trailers. I'll be the first to admit that while The Flight of the Phoenix is a very good movie and one that holds up fairly well, it does not scream for special edition status. Still, something would have been nice. I've noted earlier that this disc can be found on the cheap, but as MGM regularly does a nice job of demonstrating, inexpensive price does not have to mean subpar product. I don't know about anybody else, but I'm even willing to pay a little more if I can see that the movie was treated with care and respect. Your mileage may vary, but I was let down.
Is The Flight of the Phoenix a forgotten classic? No, but is well made, solid entertainment that is more drama than the action movie its advertising would have people believe. There is a frankness to its storytelling and an honesty to its characters from which a lot of today's movies could take a lesson.
Nothing is wasted in The Flight of the Phoenix; it is a lean, mean, and taunt exercise in human frailty and redemption. As a movie, it is well worth your time. If only the disc itself were as strong. Feature free and with audio and video that barely rises above adequate, this release is a conundrum. The film is worth seeking out, and I suppose for under ten bucks many will be tempted to just buy it, but I would strongly advise a rental. Easily one of the weakest discs I have seen from Fox, I hope this is not a sign of things to come for their budget priced discs.
The Flight of the Phoenix is acquitted of all charges. Bearing in mind past behavior in front of the court, Fox is allowed to leave with a warning but with notice that we will be watching future actions closely. Case dismissed!
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