The Flight of the Phoenix (1965 film)
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The Flight of the Phoenix is a 1965 American drama film starring James Stewart, produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, and based on the 1964 novel The Flight of the Phoenix by Elleston Trevor. The story describes a small group of men struggling to survive their aircraft's emergency landing in the Sahara Desert, and stars Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Krüger and Ernest Borgnine. The ensemble cast includes Ian Bannen, Ronald Fraser, Christian Marquand, Dan Duryea and George Kennedy as other passengers on the aircraft.
|The Flight of the Phoenix|
1965 theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Robert Aldrich|
|Produced by||Robert Aldrich|
|Written by||Lukas Heller|
|Based on||The Flight of the Phoenix|
by Elleston Trevor
|Music by||Frank De Vol|
|Edited by||Michael Luciano|
The Associates and Aldrich
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|December 15, 1965|
|Budget||$5,355,000:254 or $3.8 million|
|Box office||$3 million (around $24.21 millions in 2019 value) (US/Canada rentals):230|
311,136 admissions (France)
Though the film was a failure at the box office, it has since gained a large following.
Frank Towns (James Stewart) is the pilot of a twin-engine Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo plane flying from Jaghbub to Benghazi in Libya; Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) is the navigator. The passengers include Capt. Harris (Peter Finch) and Sgt. Watson (Ronald Fraser) of the British Army; Dr. Renaud (Christian Marquand), a physician; Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger), a German aeronautical engineer; and an oil company accountant named Standish (Dan Duryea). There are also several oil workers, including Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine), a foreman suffering from mental fatigue; Ratbags Crow (Ian Bannen), a cocky Scot; Carlos (Alex Montoya) and his pet monkey; and Gabriel (Gabriele Tinti).
A sudden sandstorm disables the engines, forcing Towns to crash-land in the desert. As the aircraft careens to a stop, several oil drums and oil drilling tools break loose and severely injure Gabriel's leg. Two other workers are killed.
The radio is unusable, and the survivors are too far off-course to be found and rescued. They have a large quantity of pitted dates for food, being returned "because no one would eat them" but only with enough water to last for ten to fifteen days even if they avoid physical exertion. Captain Harris and Carlos attempt to walk "at night and rest during the day" to an oasis. Carlos leaves his monkey behind with "Little Ratbags". Harris and Towns refuse to let the mentally burned out Cobb go along, but Cobb defiantly follows anyway and ends up dying of exposure in the desert. Days later, Harris returns to the crash site alone and barely alive.
Meanwhile, Dorfmann has been working on a radical idea: He believes they can build a new aircraft from the wreckage. The C-82 has twin booms extending rearwards from each engine and connected by the horizontal stabilizer. Dorfmann's plan is to attach the outer sections of both wings to the left engine and left boom, discarding the center fuselage and both inner wing sections of the aircraft. The passengers will ride on top of the wings. Harris and Moran believe he is either joking or delusional. The argument is complicated by a personality clash between Towns, a proud old traditionalist aviator, and Dorfmann, an equally proud young technician. Moran struggles to keep the peace.
Although Towns is resistant, Renaud points out that activity and any hope will keep the men's morale up, and so Towns agrees with the plan. Dorfmann supervises the reconstruction, while Towns remains doubtful. During the work, Gabriel commits suicide by slitting his wrist, making the men so depressed that they contemplate giving up the new plane's construction. Dorfmann is caught exceeding his water ration, but explains that he alone has been working continuously, and promises to not do it again while demanding they all work equally hard. Moran talks Towns into resuming work on the aircraft.
When the new aircraft is almost complete, Standish labels it "The Phoenix" after the mythical bird that is reborn from its ashes. Any good mood, however, is quashed after a band of rebel Arabs camps nearby. While the others (and the aircraft) remain hidden, Harris and Renaud go to ask them for help and are murdered. Additionally, Towns and Moran learn that Dorfmann designs model airplanes rather than full-sized ones. Dorfmann claims that the principles are exactly the same, and that in many aspects models require much more exacting designs and can be less forgiving than full-size aircraft, but Towns and Moran are horrified at the idea of flying a plane made by a man who works with "toys". Without any other choice, however, they decide to forge ahead with the plan.
Just as the water supplies are exhausted, the Phoenix is completed. Only seven starter cartridges are available for the engine, and the first four startup attempts are unsuccessful. Towns decides to fire the fifth cartridge with the ignition off, to clear the engine's cylinders, which he does over Dorfmann's strenuous objection. The next startup is successful. The men pull the Phoenix to a nearby hilltop and climb onto the wings. When Towns guns the engine, the Phoenix slides down the hill and along a lake bed before taking off. After landing at an oasis with a manned oil rig, the men celebrate and Towns and Dorfmann are reconciled.
- James Stewart as Capt. Frank Towns
- Richard Attenborough as Lew Moran
- Hardy Krüger as Heinrich Dorfmann
- Peter Finch as Capt. Harris
- Ernest Borgnine as Trucker Cobb
- Ian Bannen as "Ratbags" Crow
- Ronald Fraser as Sgt. Watson
- Christian Marquand as Dr. Renaud
- Dan Duryea as Standish
- George Kennedy as Mike Bellamy
- Gabriele Tinti as Gabriel
- Alex Montoya as Carlos
- Peter Bravos as Tasso
- William Aldrich as Bill
- Barrie Chase as Farida
- Stanley Ralph Ross as Arab singer (voice; uncredited)
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Principal photography started April 26, 1965, at the 20th Century-Fox Studios and 20th Century-Fox Ranch, California. Other filming locations, simulating the desert, were Buttercup Valley, Arizona and Pilot Knob Mesa, California. The flying sequences were all filmed at Pilot Knob Mesa near Winterhaven, located in California's Imperial Valley, on the western fringes of Yuma, Arizona.
In 2005, Hollywood aviation historian Simon Beck identified the aircraft used in the film:
- Fairchild C-82A Packet, N6887C – flying shots.
- Fairchild C-82A Packet, N4833V – outdoor location wreck.
- Fairchild C-82A Packet, N53228 – indoor studio wreck.
- Fairchild R4Q-1 Flying Boxcar (the USMC C-119C variant), BuNo. 126580 – non-flying Phoenix prop.
- Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, N93082 – flying Phoenix aircraft.
- North American O-47A, N4725V – second flying Phoenix.
The C-82As were from Steward-Davies Inc. at Long Beach, California, while the O-47A came from the Planes of Fame air museum in California. The R4Q-1 was purchased from Allied Aircraft of Phoenix, Arizona. The aerial camera platform was a B-25J Mitchell, N1042B, which was also used in the 1970 film Catch-22. The flying sequences were flown by Paul Mantz, co-owner of Tallmantz Aviation, filling in for his partner Frank Tallman, who had injured his leg.
Famous racing/stunt/movie pilot and collector of warplanes Paul Mantz was flying the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, the machine that was "made of the wreckage", in front of the cameras on the morning of July 8, 1965. He was performing touch-and-go landings, and on one touchdown the fuselage buckled. The movie model broke apart and cartwheeled, killing Mantz and seriously injuring stuntman Bobby Rose on board.
Although principal photography was completed on August 13, 1965, in order to complete filming, a North American O-47A (N4725V) from the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California was modified and used as a flying Phoenix stand-in. With the canopy removed, a set of skids attached to the main landing gear as well as ventral fin added to the tail, it sufficed as more-or-less a visual lookalike. Filming using the O-47A was completed in October/November 1965. It appears in the last flying scenes, painted to look like the earlier Phoenix P-1.
The final production utilized a mix of footage that included the O-47A, the "cobbled-together" Phoenix and Phoenix P-1.
The final credit on the screen was, "It should be remembered... that Paul Mantz, a fine man and a brilliant flyer, gave his life in the making of this film..."
The film opened in selected theaters on December 15, 1965, with a full release in 1966. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dismissed it as "grim and implausible", while Variety praised the film as an "often-fascinating and superlative piece of filmmaking highlighted by standout performances and touches that show producer-director at his best."
Aldrich says the film previewed well and everyone thought it was going to be a big hit but "it never took off" commercially.
According to Fox records, the film needed to earn $10,800,000 in rentals to break even and made $4,855,000, meaning it made a loss.
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