Flight Of The Phoenix (II)

I’m still on an old movie binge. I screened this last night with the Cute Engineer (the original, 1965 James Stewart version; we don’t need no steenkin remakes).

Unlike some movies you saw as a kid, it was as good as I remembered. I don’t know why it hasn’t got more of a following than it does, judging from the sparsity of online references. But perhaps it appealed to a cohort that doesn’t spend much time online.

I actually referenced this in my very first post  — because the penultimate scene, in which a kludged airplane, built from fragments of a demolished cargo craft, comes in low for a landing over an oil field, epitomized something about the human condition that was crystallizing in my mind even at the age of ten. “What the hell is that?” ejaculates an oilfield worker — pretty edgy for 1965 — as the Phoenix swoops out of sight to land beyond a dune, its payload of crazed, desert-desiccated castaways staggering back over the rise to bellyflop in the nearby oasis.

That’s life, and the sick sense of humor at the heart of the cosmos. Death, desperation, insane ingenuity, the kind of slow-motion ordeal that peels everyone back to the spindle of his character… and somehow the result is a surreal jaw-dropper, a WTF moment including, among other things, a thirsty Rhesus monkey.

Hardy Krueger — a onetime Waffen-SS draftee — plays the eerily confident German design engineer who engages all the survivors of a desert plane crash in a plan to salvage a working plane from the wreckage. Quite late in the film, we find out that “Mr. Dorfmann” is a designer for a firm that makes radio-controlled flying models, with wingspans of a meter or two. At that point, everyone’s so committed to the project, and so loopy from a diet of pressed dates and distilled antifreeze, that there’s nothing to do but press on without questioning his self-possessed, ruthless conviction. My soft spot for engineers may date from this era. And of course, he’s right; the damn thing does fly.

I was a bit nervous when I started up the disc; I half feared that there would be something cheesy, or naive, that had evaded my ten year old sense of wonder. No worries; quite the reverse. When in the last thirty years has an adventure film not pandered to some imagined audience need for perfectly toothsome leading men, at the expense of authenticity and dramatic skill? When have sequences like airline crashes or personal confrontations not been absurdly pumped up with melodramatic, haptic thrill-milking?

Stewart’s old-hand pilot looks like a zillion guys of his ilk and era probably looked: sloping and gangly, with zooted trousers. Krueger is plain weedy. Richard Attenborough (remember Hammond in Jurassic Park? That guy) can do more with one facial muscle than the average studio stud can do with his whole body. I was in love with all of them. (It frightened me how keen memory remained. Oddly, I remembered Stewart as uttering the line about “flying a toy airplane” that followed the revelation of Krueger’s status as a model-plane designer; actually it was Attenborough, but I had recalled the inflection precisely.)

The thing that jarred me unexpectedly was a succession of references to Benghazi — the place that everyone hoped to get back to, the handhold on civilization. That Benghazi.

If we’d had a time-telescope in 1965… I suppose we would have said “WTF”?

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4 thoughts on “Flight Of The Phoenix (II)

  1. That was an outstanding movie. It was a film where going along with the brains in the group was the only road to survival.

    I too go on film kicks (often reflected in my blog postings). Currently, I make use of our local library’s foreign film selection — a very nice one.

    With more old TV shows and films finding their way to the Internet (Hulu let me waste loads of time watching “The Rockford Files”) I think satisfying our inner film critics will be much easier in the near future.

    • It was also a story, told with the resources of film — its ability to linger on body language and facial expression — in which it mattered most who people were and what they decided, not how many flashy stunts were depicted, despite the situation being a life and death, desert adventure kind of thing. A bit more of that would be so welcome.

  2. A favourite of mine, too. Pretty much anything James Stewart did I will watch; he had an extraordinary gift in my opinion for bringing the ‘Everyman’ to convincing life without losing any of his uniqueness or individuality.

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