Phoenix is a landmark film in one of my favorite subgenres – what I call the “closed system melodrama” – where an ensemble of characters is trapped in a “no exit” situation, often harassed by vague forces from the outside. An early example is John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934). A fine recent example is TV’s Lost. I admit it – I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.
In Flight of the Phoenix, a group of men are stranded in the Middle Eastern desert when their airplane crashes. The ensemble of characters is a fine international mix that includes Jimmy Stewart as an American pilot, Richard Attenborough as his British navigator, Hardy Kruger as a German engineer, and Christian Marquand as a French psychiatrist (Ernest Borgnine plays his mentally impaired patient). It’s Kruger’s engineer who comes up with the idea of building a smaller functional airplane out of the wreckage of the one that crashed. Hence, the film’s title.
The internationalism of the cast gives the whole thing an allegorical flavor. Stewart’s American pilot is a stubborn, go-it-alone, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants cowboy type. (Sound familiar?) Kruger’s German engineer is a cold, human-calculator type who insists that everything be done exactly his way – or not at all! Attenborough’s British navigator is the desperate go-between who realizes the only hope for anyone’s survival is collective cooperation. There is lots of first-rate ensemble acting with many surprising twists.
It all leads up to an incredible montage sequence – will they or will they not get this reconstructed crate off the ground! – that is both a political statement (the world must learn to cooperate or die) and thrilling cinema in its own right.