Flight of the Phoenix, The: Aldrich Disaster Film, Starring Jimmy Stewart and Ian Bannen in Oscar Nominated Turn

The Flight of the Phoenix is a satisfyingly detailed “disaster” movie, long before the genre became popular and debased in the 1970s with films like Äirport.

Well directed by Robert Aldrich, the story, based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Elleston Trevor, the tale describes several men struggling to survive their aircraft’s crash, centering on the shifting group dynamics–self-interests, conflicts, arguments, solutions, and so on–that evolves among the survivors.

James Stewart heads one of the best male ensembles in Hollywood history, as Frank Towns, the pilot of a twin-engine Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo aircraft from Jaghbub flying to Benghazi in Libya. Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough, who later became a director) is the navigator.

Among the passengers are 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, Mr. Standish (Dan Duryea), an oil company accountant.

The oil workers that include Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine), a mentally disturbed foreman, Ratbags Crow (Ian Bannen), a mean and sardonic Scot; Carlos (Alex Montoya) and his pet monkey.

A sudden sandstorm shuts down the engines, forcing Towns to crash-land in the desert. As the aircraft careens to a stop, several oil drums break loose and severely injure one man’s leg. Two other workers are killed.

With no functional radio to use for help, the survivors wait to be rescued, but the storm blew them too far off-course to be found. They figure out that their water will only last for 10 days or so.

Harris and Carlos attempt to walk to an oasis, but they refuse to let Cobb join them, due to his increasing mental instability, but he follows and dies. Days later, Harris returns to the crash site.

Dorfmann comes up with a brilliant idea, building 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 panel of the right wing to the left engine, left boom and left wing outer panel, discarding the center fuselage and both inner wing panels of the aircraft. Harris and Moran believe he is either joking or deluded, and the animosity between Towns the veteran pilot and Dorfmann the aircraft designer increases.

The struggle is complicated by a personality clash between Towns, who is a proud old traditionalist, and Dorfmann, a young, equally proud technician. Moran, a good natured man suffering from alcoholism, struggles to keep the peace. The tension only gets worse when Dorfmann bluntly explains that Gabriel will die before the aircraft flies.

Although Towns is resistant, Renaud points out that activity and any hope will keep the men’s morale up and so Towns agrees to the plan. Dorfmann supervises as the workers cut, haul, and weld parts of the aircraft. Towns is doubtful the plans will succeed. During the work, Gabriel takes his own life by slitting his wrist with a knife. The men are so depressed by the loss they contemplate giving up the new plane’s construction. Things seem even bleaker when Towns discovers that Dorfmann has taken extra rations of water.

However, Dorfmann promises to not do so again if they all work equally hard. Moran talks Towns into resuming work on the aircraft.
When the new aircraft is complete, Standish labels it “The Phoenix” after the mythical bird reborn from its ashes. Unfortunately, Harris and Renaud are murdered by a band of native raiders.

Then, Dorfmann loses his temper and stops working after Towns insists on testing the engine, which would deplete the supply of explosive Coffman engine starter cartridges. Once again Moran reconciles the feud. Towns and Moran are concerned about flying an aircraft made by a man who works with “toys.” But with no workable alternatives, they don’t tell the other men.

Dorfmann panics when four cartridges fail to start the engine and Towns wants to use one of the remaining three cartridges to clear the engine’s cylinders. Dorfmann objects, but Towns fires one cartridge with the ignition off. The men pull the Phoenix to a 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.

Jimmy Stewart gives an excellent performance as the remorseful pilot, whose error caused the crash.

Though the film was a commercial failure when initially released, it has since gained a small following and is often shown on TV.


James Stewart as Capt. Frank Towns
Hardy Krüger as Heinrich Dorfmann
Richard Attenborough as Lew Moran
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

End Note

Life imitates art: Ironically, the stunt pilot Paul Mantz was killed in a crash during the shoot.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Supporting Actor: Ian Bannen
Film Editing: Michael Luciano

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1965, the winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar was Martin Balsam for the comedy, “A Thousand Clowns.” The Editing Oscar went to William Reynolds for the musical “The Sound of Music, which swept most of the awards.