The Flight of the Phoenix (1965 film)

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The Flight of the Phoenix
The Flight of the Phoenix - 1965 - Poster.png
1965 theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Produced by Robert Aldrich
Written by Lukas Heller
Based on The Flight of the Phoenix
by Elleston Trevor
Starring James Stewart
Richard Attenborough
Hardy Krüger
Peter Finch
Ernest Borgnine
Music by Frank De Vol
Cinematography Joseph Biroc
Edited by Michael Luciano
The Associates and Aldrich
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
December 15, 1965 (1965-12-15)
Running time
142 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5,355,000[1] or $3.8 million[2]
Box office $3 million ( US/ Canada rentals)[3]
311,136 admissions (France)[4]

The Flight of the Phoenix is a 1965 American drama film starring James Stewart, produced and directed by Robert Aldrich,[5] and based on the 1964 novel The Flight of the Phoenix by Elleston Trevor. The story describes several men struggling to survive their aircraft's emergency landing in the Sahara desert, and stars Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Krüger and Ernest Borgnine. The ensemble cast includes Ian Bannen, Ronald Fraser, Christian Marquand, Dan Duryea and George Kennedy as other passengers on the aircraft.

Though the film was a failure at the box office, it has since gained a cult following.


Frank Towns (James Stewart) is the pilot of a twin-engine Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo plane flying from Jaghbub to Benghazi in Libya. Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) is the navigator while the passengers are Capt. Harris (Peter Finch) and Sgt. Watson (Ronald Fraser) of the British Army; Dr. Renaud (Christian Marquand), a physician; Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger), a German aeronautical engineer; Mr. Standish (Dan Duryea), an oil company accountant; and several oil workers that include Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine), a mentally-disturbed foreman; Ratbags Crow (Ian Bannen), a mean-spirited, sardonic Scot; Carlos (Alex Montoya) and his pet monkey; and Gabriel (Gabriele Tinti). A sudden sandstorm shuts down the engines, forcing Towns to crash-land in the desert. As the aircraft careens to a stop, several oil drums and oil drilling tools break loose and severely injure Gabriel's leg. Two other workers are killed.

With no functioning radio to call for help, the survivors wait to be rescued, but the storm has blown them too far off-course to be found. Although they have a large quantity of dates for food, they calculate their water will last for only ten to fifteen days, provided they avoid physical exertion. Harris and Carlos attempt to walk to an oasis. Carlos leaves his monkey behind with the men. Harris and Towns refuse to let Cobb go along due to his increasing mental instability, but he defiantly follows and dies. Days later, Harris returns to the crash site alone and barely alive.

Meanwhile, Dorfmann has been working on a radical idea: He believes they can build a new aircraft from the wreckage. The C-82 has twin booms extending rearwards from each engine and connected by the horizontal stabilizer. Dorfmann's plan is to attach the outer panel of the right wing to the left engine, left boom and left wing outer panel, discarding the center fuselage and both inner wing panels of the aircraft, having the passengers traveling on top of the wings. Harris and Moran believe he is either joking or deluded, and the animosity between Towns the veteran pilot and Dorfmann the aircraft designer increases. Post-World War II anti-German sentiment also simmers under the surface. The struggle is complicated by a personality clash between Towns, who is a proud old traditionalist aviator, and Dorfmann, a young, equally-proud technician. Moran, a good-natured man suffering from alcoholism, struggles to keep the peace. The tension only gets worse when Dorfmann bluntly explains that Gabriel will die before the aircraft flies and there will be no need to provide the new aircraft with safe means of transporting the injured.

Although Towns is resistant, Renaud points out that activity and any hope will keep the men's morale up and so Towns agrees with the plan. Dorfmann supervises as the workers cut, haul and weld parts of the aircraft. Towns is doubtful that the plans will succeed. During the work, Gabriel takes his own life by slitting his wrist with a knife. The men are so depressed by the loss they contemplate giving up the new plane's construction. Things seem even bleaker when Towns discovers that Dorfmann has taken extra rations of water. His explanation is that he alone has been working continuously. However, Dorfmann promises to not do so again if they all work equally hard. Moran talks Towns into resuming work on the aircraft.

When the new aircraft is almost complete, Standish labels it "The Phoenix" after the mythical bird that is reborn from its ashes. Any good mood, however, is quashed when Harris and Renaud are murdered by a band of native raiders that the pair contacted for help while the rest of the crew and the aircraft remained hidden.

Final plans are made for the Phoenix's flight. Dorfmann loses his temper and stops working after Towns insists on testing the engine, which would deplete the scarce supply of explosive Coffman engine starter cartridges. Once again, Moran must patch up the feud and work continues.

Towns and Moran learn that Dorfmann designs model aircraft rather than full-sized aircraft. Dorfmann claims that the principles are exactly the same, and that in many aspects models require much more exacting designs and can be less forgiving than full-size aircraft, but Towns and Moran are horrified at the idea of flying an aircraft made by a man who works with "toys". Without any other choice, however, Towns and Moran forge ahead with the plan and don't tell the others of their discovery.

Just as the water runs out, the Phoenix is completed. Dorfmann panics when four cartridges fail to start the engine and Towns wants to use one of the remaining three cartridges just to clear the engine's cylinders. Dorfmann objects, but Towns ignores him and fires one cartridge with the ignition off. The next cartridge succeeds. The men pull the Phoenix to a nearby hilltop and climb onto the wings with Carlos' pet monkey in tow. When Towns guns the engine, the Phoenix slides down the hill and along a lake bed before taking off. After the Phoenix lands at an oasis with a manned oil rig, the men celebrate and Towns and Dorfmann are reconciled.




Principal photography started April 26, 1965, at the 20th Century-Fox Studios and 20th Century-Fox Ranch, California. Other filming locations, simulating the desert, were Buttercup Valley, Arizona and Pilot Knob Mesa, California. The flying sequences were all filmed at Pilot Knob Mesa near Winterhaven, located in California's Imperial Valley, on the western fringes of Yuma, Arizona.

Aircraft used[edit]

In 2005, Hollywood aviation historian Simon Beck identified the aircraft used in the film:

  • Fairchild C-82A Packet, N6887C – flying shots.
  • Fairchild C-82A Packet, N4833V – outdoor location wreck.
  • Fairchild C-82A Packet, N53228 – indoor studio wreck.
  • Fairchild R4Q-1 Flying Boxcar (the USMC C-119C variant), BuNo. 126580 – non-flying Phoenix prop.
  • Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, N93082 – flying Phoenix aircraft.
  • North American O-47A, N4725V – second flying Phoenix.

The C-82As were from Steward-Davies Inc. at Long Beach, California, while the O-47A came from the Planes of Fame air museum in California. The R4Q-1 was purchased from Allied Aircraft of Phoenix, Arizona. The aerial camera platform was a B-25J Mitchell, N1042B, which was also used in the 1970 film Catch-22. The flying sequences were flown by Paul Mantz, co-owner of the Tallmantz Aviation, filling in for his partner Frank Tallman,who had injured his leg.

A famous racing/stunt/movie pilot and collector of warplanes, Paul Mantz was flying the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, the machine that was "made of the wreckage", in front of the cameras on the morning of July 8, 1965. He was performing touch-and-go landings, and on one touchdown the fuselage buckled. The movie model broke apart and cartwheeled, killing Mantz and seriously injuring stuntman Bobby Rose on board.[6]

Although principal photography was completed on August 13, 1965, in order to complete filming, a North American O-47A (N4725V) from the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California was modified and used as a flying Phoenix stand-in. With the canopy removed, a set of skids attached to the main landing gear as well as ventral fin added to the tail, it sufficed as more-or-less a visual lookalike. Filming using the O-47A was completed in October/November 1965. It appears in the last flying scenes, painted to look like the earlier Phoenix P-1.

The final production utilized a mix of footage that included the O-47A, the "cobbled-together" Phoenix and Phoenix P-1.

The final credit on the screen was, "It should be remembered that Paul Mantz ... a fine man, and a brilliant flyer, gave his life in the making of this film ..."

The Phoenix "static" model as seen in the film


The film opened in selected theaters on December 15, 1965, with a full release in 1966. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times dismissed it as "grim and implausible,"[7] while Variety praised the film as an "often-fascinating and superlative piece of filmmaking highlighted by standout performances and touches that show producer-director at his best."[8]


The Flight of the Phoenix was nominated for two Academy Awards: Ian Bannen for Supporting Actor and Michael Luciano for Film Editing.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Solomon 1989, p. 254.
  2. ^ Silver and Ursini 1995, p. 267.
  3. ^ Solomon 1989, p. 230. See also "Big Rental Pictures of 1966". Variety, January 4, 1967, p. 8. Please note figures are rentals not total gross.
  4. ^ French box office results for Robert Aldrich films at Box Office Story
  5. ^ "The Flight of the Phoenix". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved February 29, 2016. 
  6. ^ "The Final Flight of the Phoenix." Retrieved: January 24, 2010.
  7. ^ Crowther, Bosely. "'The Flight of the Phoenix' (1965); Screen: From the Ashes:'Flight of the Phoenix' on View at 2 Theaters." The New York Times, February 1, 1966. Retrieved: January 24, 2010.
  8. ^ "'The Flight of the Phoenix'." Retrieved: January 24, 2010.


  • Cox, Stephen. It's a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book. Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 2003. ISBN 1-58182-337-1.
  • Eliot, Mark. Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-5221-1.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Jones, Ken D., Arthur F. McClure and Alfred E. Twomey. The Films of James Stewart. New York: Castle Books, 1970.
  • Munn, Michael. Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind The Legend. Fort Lee, New Jersey: Barricade Books Inc., 2006. ISBN 1-56980-310-2.
  • Pickard, Roy. Jimmy Stewart: A Life in Film. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992. ISBN 0-312-08828-0.
  • Robbins, Jhan. Everybody's Man: A Biography of Jimmy Stewart. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1985. ISBN 0-399-12973-1.
  • Silver, Alain and James Ursini. Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich? His Life and Films. New York: Limelight, 1995. ISBN 978-0-87910-185-5.
  • Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1.
  • Thomas, Tony. A Wonderful Life: The Films and Career of James Stewart. Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1988. ISBN 0-8065-1081-1.

External links[edit]