The Flight of the Phoenix is a 1965 survival film starring American actor James Stewart, German actor Hardy Kruger, and British actor Richard Attenborough (later famous as the director of Gandhi). It was directed by Robert Aldrich and written by Lukas Heller, based on the novel by Elleston Trevor. The story concerns the crash in the Sahara Desert of an oil company cargo plane carrying about a dozen passengers and crew. The plane has flown far from its flight plan in a sandstorm and is too far from civilization to walk out from. No one will come for the survivors of the crash. They have about two weeks worth of water; after that runs out they can expect madness and death.
One of the passengers, a German, is, as it turns out, an aircraft designer, and he comes up with a bold plan: build a new, smaller plane out of the wreckage of the old and fly to the nearest outpost of civilization. The men have all the materials and tools needed to do this; they just need to muster the energy and determination. To the pilot it sounds like a crazy scheme, but the French physician among the passengers tells the pilot that just having a project that gives the men hope will keep them alive longer. So they take it on.
The film is an excellent example of the integration of character, plot and theme, which we’ll get to in a moment. However, the movie is thrilling just in its setting. The desert dazzles the viewer with its torrid midday sun. The building and flying of the new plane, dubbed “The Phoenix” by one of the passengers, fascinates. The film is nothing if not dramatic: characters representing different principles clash over issues relating to the advancement of the plot. The story contains a diverse assortment of (white male) humanity: Americans, Brits, an Irishman, a Scot, a Frenchman, a German, a Greek and an Arab.
The primary conflict is between the pilot, Frank Towns (played by Stewart) and the designer, Heinrich Dorfmann (played by Kruger). The navigator, Lew Moran, (played by Attenborough) acts as mediator. Towns is an aging pilot who has flown every kind of plane ever built. Moran sarcastically suggests that Towns could land a plane in a tennis court. Before the crash he waxes nostalgic for the old days when the fun of flying was “just getting there,” and after the crash he torments himself with guilt and bitterness. He blames himself for the crash and for the deaths of the men killed in it. (In fact it is quite clear that he was not to blame and saved most of the men’s lives by his expert landing of the cargo plane on the sand.) He represents experience and practical reason.
James Stewart as Frank Towns
Theoretical reason is represented by Dorfmann. Dorfmann is a bit of a stereotype of a German engineer, cold and deaf to social cues. He clearly knows his way around planes and calculates every lift/drag coefficient on a slide rule he carries around in his pocket. (What was he doing in the middle of the godforsaken desert? He was on vacation visiting his brother the geophysicist! And of course he takes his slide rule with him!)
Hardy Kruger as Heinrich Dorfmann
Under normal circumstances these two men would probably ignore each other, but they have to work together. Heat and thirst and desperation exaggerate their salient characteristics and make tempers flare. But for anybody to survive Dorfmann must guide the construction of the new plane and Towns must fly it on the first try. They sulk and throw insults. The project would fail were it not for Moran interceding, reasoning with and cajoling the two angry, stubborn men.
Richard Attenborough as Lew Moran
So Towns represents practical reason, Dorfmann represents theoretical reason and Moran represents “social reason” or just plain reasonableness. I’m not trying to suggest that these categories are engraved in human nature in some sort of platonic taxonomy. In fact, they form a false trichotomy. Be that as it may, many people do “specialize” along these lines in society or have such divisions within their own minds. Towns is sentimental and generally emotional, where Dorfmann is calculating and arrogant. They battle for dominance. Moran, on the other hand, has very little ego and seems to be an alcoholic (I take this to be in keeping with his social reason, not his common sense, since drinkers are often known for their socializing.) Their conflicts and resolutions move the plot along.
(Even the characters’ names have meaning: “Towns” suggests a wider experience of the world, while “Dorfmann,” which in German means “villager,” suggests a narrower experience. “Moran” means “love” in Gaelic.)
Most of the minor characters also symbolize some aspect or failing of reason. The British army captain (played by Peter Finch) is a by-the-book dogmatist. The oil-rigger (played by Ernest Borgnine) has had a nervous breakdown and is not in his right mind. There is a good-natured roustabout (played by George Kennedy) who is referred to by another character as a “big horse” (and he is as cheerful and helpful as a horse). The Frenchman (played by Christian Marquand) is a humane and ironic psychiatrist named Renaud (which is a French word for “fox.”) The weakling accountant played by Dan Duryea is a mystic. The Scottish cynic (played by Ian Bannen, who received the film’s only Oscar nomination) is named Crow, but everyone calls him “Ratbags.” Even though the cast is fairly large, the filmmakers always keep the characters distinct and vivid. It is worth mentioning that you will rarely see a motion picture that has so many once and future Oscar winners in it as The Flight of the Phoenix.
I don’t want to give away any more of the details. Although I think it is obvious what the outcome will be in a general way, the pleasure is in getting there. It is not a given who will live and who will not.
So, despite being a survival story about grimy men with blisters, The Flight of the Phoenix has an abstract theme: the necessity of the different kinds of reason to work together if the whole is to survive. Interestingly, you see something of the same theme in the original Star Trek, in which Spock represents logic, McCoy represents emotion, and Kirk represents the strategizing will. Again, a false trichotomy in the philosophical sense, but one that reflects how some people live.
The Flight of the Phoenix is one of the films of my childhood. I must have watched it ten times when it came on TV on Sunday afternoons, and when I grew up I bought the DVD and watched it some more. When I was a child I enjoyed the surface drama and adventure. As an adult I still enjoy these things, but an understanding of the philosophical theme deepens my pleasure. It is part of me. I find a kind of transcendence in the resolution of the conflicting principles.
I believe that a lot of movies and novels work this way, offering hidden treasure. The characters don’t make speeches about what they stand for and the author won’t drop his theme in your lap, but there is more to them than meets the eye, if you only you only take the trouble to tease it out. I guess that’s Lit Crit 101, but many people don’t seem to practice it. Maybe a good place to start would be with a film like The Flight of the Phoenix that connects its plot, characters and theme so deeply. Would that all stories were so well integrated!
If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life