Flight of the Phoenix

If you’ve only seen Dennis Quaid and Miranda Otto in the recent remake of this film, you’ve missed something wonderful. The film shares shares the same basic plot and characters (at least in caricature), but the original Flight of the Phoenix is far superior.

Sure, the remake is easy to watch. Dennis Quaid and Miranda Otto (not to mention the always worthwhile Hugh Laurie) do a serviceable job, but there you have it: It’s perhaps a dependable film but nothing to write home (or online) about. The original, on the other hand, which I recently watched on AMC, shows that an adventure film can do more than deliver shock and awe.

Based on the adventure novel of the same name, Flight of the Phoenix first came to the silver screen in the sure hands of director Robert Aldritch. An fine director, he is best-known for 1967’s The Dirty Dozen (one of my favorite films), but The Frisco Kid (“Come here little chicken. I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to eat you.”), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Longest Yard. Perhaps the fact that three of his films have been remade (and another, Dozen, is on the way) says something about his ability and influence.
Phoenix is a taut piece that’s worth watching for a number of reasons, not least of which is the cast. Jimmy Stewart delivers as usual. The trembling Everyman, Stewart’s Frank Towns is less confident than Dennis Quaid’s, and it makes him more likable and believable than the latter. He has this intensity…I remember the scene from It’s A Wonderful Life when he’s sitting there with Potter and wringing his hands. (“Please, Mr Potter, won’t you help me?”)

Then there’s Sir Richard Attenborough, who I’ve seen recently in The Great Escape. He makes the navigator’s role (largely forgettable in the remake) really sing. I like his style (in both roles) and if you’ve only seen him in Jurassic Park you probably won’t know what I mean.

Several important supporting players do an admirable job as well–Peter Finch (Howard Beale in Network), Ernest Borgnine (Airwolf! [and a few other things]), George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke). The other actors are good as well, but these alone lift Phoenix above the level of standard adventure fare. Seeing their characters try and escape the pressure cooker they’re in had me wringing my hands.

(The only character I liked better in the remake was Giovanni Ribisi’s Elliot. In the original, the ‘airplane designer’ is largely forgettable in my opinion. Ribisi seems to be able to make anything work; after all, he was Phoebe’s brother Frank Jr. on Friends.)

The level of realism in the original makes a difference too. While the remake relies on computer effects to make the Phoenix fly, the original crew built a working plane. It flew very well, though you wouldn’t know if from the crash that occurred while Aldritch was filming the final scene. Stunt pilot Paul Mantz was killed, forcing them to reshoot with another plane.

Do yourself a favor. Pick this one up on DVD, or add it to your Netflix queue. If you like classic films at all, I doubt you’ll be sorry.

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