Flight of the Phoenix, The (1966)

Flight of the Phoenix, The (1966)

“Are you asking me to kill the rest of them trying to get a death trap off the ground?”

After a pilot (James Stewart) and his alcoholic navigator (Richard Attenborough) conduct an emergency landing in the Sahara Desert, they and the surviving men on board — including a German engineer (Hardy Kruger), a British captain (Peter Finch) and his sergeant (Ronald Fraser), a French doctor (Christian Marquand), a mentally deteriorating foreman (Ernest Borgnine), an oil company accountant (Dan Duryea), and three oil drillers (Ian Bannen, George Kennedy, and Alex Montoya) — work to craft a flyable plane out of their wreck.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Airplanes and Pilots
  • Dan Duryea Films
  • Ernest Borgnine Films
  • George Kennedy Films
  • James Stewart Films
  • Peter Finch Films
  • Richard Attenborough Films
  • Robert Aldrich Films
  • Survival

Robert Aldrich directed this gritty survival flick — based on a novel of the same name — about a group of diverse men attempting to make their way through a seemingly hopeless situation. From the beginning scene of instability in the air:

… to their crash landing in a dusty desert (resulting in two fatalities and one serious injury), we see a wide variety of emotional responses to the catastrophe, including humor, pragmatism, resignation, delusion, defiance, and despair. After setting up a relatively stable base:

… and determining how long they have until their highly rationed water runs out, the group comes up with a variety of contested ways to attempt rescue. Should they flag down a passing plane? (Yes, of course, but it doesn’t work.)

Should they walk across the desert and attempt to find others? (Finch is determined to try this.)

And how should they manage a group of nomads that suddenly appear over the horizon?

The craziest yet most deliberated idea comes from Hardy, a serious German who seems to approach every moment of his existence with rationality; throughout the film, we see him continuously calculating and making plans for building a new plane.

Eventually the rest of the men realize they might as well give this a try; even if it doesn’t work, at least they will keep up their morale doing something. Many scenes show the men working through the dark coolness of the night, following Hardy’s orders no matter how far-fetched — and lo and behold, a plane does emerge; but will it fly?

Ian Bannen was nominated as Best Supporting Actor for his small role here as a cocky Cockney, and he’s good but not necessarily more memorable than other members of the ensemble cast.

To say too much more would give away spoilers; this is an adventure flick that should be seen and enjoyed as the numerous tensions unfold.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the ensemble cast

  • Joseph Biroc’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a good show by a master director. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Good Show
  • Important Director


One thought on “Flight of the Phoenix, The (1966)

  1. Rewatch (1/18/21). Not must-see. ~ not unless you happen to have an interest in airplanes and how they work.

    Although I’m usually an Aldrich fan, I’m a bit stumped re: why he imagined (as he did) that this would be a commercial success (it wasn’t). Aside from the fact that the plane crashes early on, this is largely a talky and rather inert film dealing with survival and ‘rising from the flames’. (Critics liked it; audiences stayed away.)

    Of course, there is also the added tension of the Agatha Christie-esque aspect of ‘And Then There Were None’: who will survive?

    But the actual drama is minimal. On some level, there is the intriguing element of human interaction – and the stress of that – taking place as the men differ on what is the correct course to take. But, all told, this is a rather slow-moving film.

    It’s certainly well-acted and well-directed. But it’s every bit the long haul that the characters themselves are experiencing.

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