Saturday, 17 October 2009

The Flight of the Phoenix

Flight of the Phoenix (original version) is one of the whole time great movies. I saw it when it was new in the cinema and I must have seen it fifty times on TV since, usually turning on half way in and getting drawn into it once more.

James Stewart plays a pilot who feels responsible for the deaths of several passengers after a forced landing in the desert. He and the rest of the survivors are eventually persuaded by Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger) to attempt to build an aircraft from the remains of the old one.

The movie says something special about the nature of machines, particularly aircraft. Although they may look refined, immaculate, often beautiful, in fact they are constructed of an extraordinary quantity of precisely worked components. Each part has been made to its particular shape to serve its particular purpose. None of it occurred accidentally, somebody sat down and designed every last tiny part.

Dorfmann, the aircraft designer, has to figure out how to make a plane from what’s left intact of the old. He must come up with a design that’s viable. He has to work everything out, how the old plane must be torn apart, how the parts of it will be moved around, and how they will be reassembled, how the controls must be rigged. In reality this would be an almost superhuman feat. Could a real life aircraft designer do such a thing? Would a real aircraft designer have covered ever step of the production life cycle.  But Dorfmann’s company makes model planes, and Dorfmann has always had to design everything on his projects. Still improbable? Maybe, but this is the movies, we don't take quite as much convincing!

Moreover, and most important of  all, Dorfmann must present the case for building the Phoenix, and see it through. Dorfmann demonstrates real steel, for a time he and he alone believes in the job and recognises the importance of seeing it through. Dorfmann is commited to the point of obsession, as true genius requires.

With Dorfmann's character, the movie teeters on the edge of credibility, but the introspective Dorfmann is something special, not only did he design the airframe of his world class models, but also the radio control. Improbable stuff? Perhaps, but the movie is saved by great story telling. The survivors decide to go for it, rather than sit on their arses and die, they take a chance on the 'toy plane' builder.

In fact, many full size aircraft designers have been model plane builders. Charles Fairey had a job as a power station engineer before selling, for a considerable fee, a model design of his to Gamleys Toy Store. Then he moved into full-size aviation and eventually ran a 'little' company called Fairey Aviation. Sydney Camm, responsible for the Hurricane fighter, was also a modeller, and most recently Burt Rutan, who even borrowed some his construction techniques from aeromodelling (hot wiring foam etc). As Dorfmann puts it, flying models are not toys, they obey the same physical laws as the full sized ones. Moreover, they don't have a pilot to keep them straight and level. Of course, Dorfmann would have preferred it if he could have managed without the pilot, James Stewart's character, Frank Towns.

Frank Towns must surrender his authority to Dorfmann, so that the new plane can be built. Towns doesn’t believe the plan is feasible but he is persuaded that engaging in the project is better than letting them sit around waiting to die. Throughout Towns rails against Dorfmann but always Dorfmann is right and Towns wrong, yet still Dorfmann knows he needs Towns’ skills to fly the plane.

After many problems the plane is ready and Towns must start it up and fly. The point where Towns climbs aboard and pulls the ladder up behind him is very sweet. This is where Towns takes the plane away from Dorfmann. Now he must use all his knowledge to get the engine started.

The engine can only be started with a Coffman cartridge starter. Dorfmann suddenly feels that Towns would intentionally fail to get the engine started, so he can't kill more of them in another crash. But if the engine doesn't start Towns will have failed as a pilot AND they'll all die of thirst.

Towns starts the engine and is seen to have knowledge that Dorfmann doesn't have. In one sense getting the engine going is the end of the story, Towns has made his choice, finally committed wholeheartedly to the project, and in doing so got his self respect back.

And now, with the motor going, the Phoenix has ceased to be a collection of useless parts, it’s become the difference between life and death and every one of them has made a contribution.

At the end Dorfmann's character, rather than fulfilling the stereotype of the soulless logician, has been the the crazy one. The logical thing would really have been to sit tight and wait to be rescued. Instead, the dry logical mind has persuaded them all to invest what remains of their lives in a totally madcap scheme. And this contradiction is what makes the story so watchable.

Paul Mantz, a veteran stunt pilot who had worked with Howard Hughes on Hell's Angels was killed flying for this movie. As a result the actual flying shots look a bit truncated. It's a great pity, but Mantz died doing the work he loved, and when you gotta go, that's not a bad way to do it. And this is a wonderful movie, Mantz could hardly have wished for a better final credit than Phoenix.

More comments on Phoenix


  1. This is a great movie. I love Jimmy Stewart. The remake was no where near as good.

  2. Yes, Jimmy S. is great in this, but for me Hardy Kruger plays my favorite character. I can think of no other movie, and precious few stories, where the hero is an actual engineer, and doing actual engineering, rather muttering gibberish and playing the bagpipes.
    The fact that he is an engineer of model planes makes it doubly sweet.