A Movie A Day: THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965)
Insurance companies move in mysterious ways. Like God only far less generous.
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the first installment of A Movie A Day 2013.
Welcome back to A Movie A Day, friends and constant readers! If you missed my announcement last week and are confused as to what the hell a A Movie A Day is, here’s the short-short version. Every day Monday-Friday I’ll be reviewing a film I haven’t seen before as a way to fill some gaping holes in my film knowledge while at the same time building up a conversation about movie history. It’s a great time to be a film explorer, with TCM’s amazing programming, Netflix Watch Instant’s large library and studios starting up boutique burn-on-demand DVD services for their more obscure vault titles.
So, I’m going exploring and I hope you guys will join me on my cinematic expedition. For the first few weeks of AMAD I’m also going to feature a Buster Keaton short because Buster Keaton is awesome.
Without any further ado, let’s start this new iteration of AMAD with a look at Buster Keaton’s short The High Sign, followed by Robert Aldrich’s THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX.
I’ve always been on the Buster Keaton side of the Keaton/Chaplin cinephile civil war. I have a lot of respect for Chaplin, love his work, but there’s just something to Keaton’s stunts and likeable persona that really grabs me by the collar in a way that Chaplin doesn’t.
The High Sign is Keaton’s first solo short, but one he felt wasn’t totally right, so it wasn’t the first one he put out. I think he was insane because The High Sign is hilarious. Basically Keaton plays a jobless drifter who finds a promising wanted ad in a comically oversized newspaper looking for a sharpshooter.
Of course he isn’t one, but ends ups mixed up in an assassination plot where he somehow finds himself being hired to both kill a rich man and be the rich man’s bodyguard at the same time.
The trademark of any Keaton short or film are the huge set pieces and there’s a doozy that closes this one out, a chase through the paranoid rich man’s secret door-equipped house. As much fun as that is (and it definitely is… there’s a moment where Keaton slams a bad guy’s neck IN the door frame that had me cackling), it’s the smaller moments that made me love this short.
For instance, before showing up to answer the ad Keaton steals a cop’s gun and a beach bum’s booze bottle to get some target practice on a beach. He lines up the pistol perfectly… the way the camera is positioned we see the middle bottle is dead in its sights, but when he pulls the trigger the bottle on the right explodes. This whole sequence is so well shot (and simply so) that it really made an impression on me.
There’s also a great sequence where he’s in the bad guy’s shooting gallery and has to prove he’s a good shot by making the bell ding (when he hits a bullseye on a moving target). He can’t do that, so he creates this elaborate rope and pulley system that has a dog attached to a bell and a piece of meat that lowers up and down with a quick step on a peddle. So, he shoots and steps on the peddle, which makes the bone drop and the dog go after it, ringing the bell. What Keaton didn’t count on was an asshole cat picking a fight with the dog, causing the bell to ring over and over and over again, sending Keaton into a firing frenzy to keep up… making him look like the ultimate badass shooter ever.
Such a fast, dense, hilarious 20 minutes. I can already tell this was a great idea! Tomorrow’s short is One Week, which I have seen and it’s one of the best pieces of film ever projected. So goddamn funny. We’ll talk about that tomorrow, but now it’s time to say goodbye to Buster and hello to The Flight of the Phoenix.
I intentionally didn’t see the 2004 remake of The Flight of the Phoenix precisely because I wanted to see the original first. I just didn’t know it’d take me so damn long to watch the original.
The flick stars the great James Stewart in a role that must have been incredibly attractive to him at the time. Stewart is best known for being the likable nice guy, but here he plays an over-the-hill pilot filled with self-doubt, cynicism and just plain anger.
From all accounts Jimmy Stewart was the nice guy he portrayed in films like Harvey and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but the dude was an actor after all, so when the opportunity came to try out a dirtier, grouchier role I’m sure he jumped on it with much flair.
His character, Frank Towns, is not the gung-ho type. At all. So when a sandstorm forces an emergency landing somewhere in the Sahara desert, Frank Towns isn’t the Jack Shephard of the survivors. In fact, he’s more the Sawyer, content to wait for rescue and thinking everybody’s different ideas are even more foolish than the one that came before.
This plane carried a good 15 or so people, soldiers and contract workers, and only a couple of them died upon landing. The real danger is the storm pushed them some 100 miles off course and there’s little water to sustain everybody. No more than 12 days worth if everybody rations one cup a day.
This is almost a template for the disaster movies that would become so popular in the following decade. You have a giant cast put in a horrible situation and they have to try to find their way out of it. However there is no Gene Hackman or Steve McQueen and Paul Newman to lead these survivors, which I like. There’s no clear cut leader.
You have Stewart who is more content to sit back and frown, you have his right hand man Lew Moran, played by Richard Attenborough, who is the nice guy and a calming influence on Stewart. Lew has a drinking problem, but he’s able to pull himself out of it in order to face the deadly situation he’s in.
Then there’s Peter Finch’s Captain Harris, leader of the military force onboard. He’s a gung-ho guy, but unfortunately his gung-ho ideas are fucking stupid. He wants to march to a watering hole that is easy to miss and a multiple days walk. There isn’t enough water onboard to survive the trip, let alone leave any for the people left behind.
Rounding out the leads is Hardy Kruger playing Heinrich Dorfmann, the brain of the group. He lacks any kind of useful emotion, but Dorfmann’s almost android-like state of being has its upsides. The dude’s an airplane designer and he has a radical idea of how to get out of this mess: use the wreckage of the downed plane to build a small, light, but flyable aircraft.
It sounds absurd, but as he points out… what else do they have to work with?
Being that there are many laborers in the group it’s plausible, but even they view it more as busy work instead of just sitting in the shade counting the hours until they die from the heat of the unforgiving desert.
The supporting cast includes a couple of my favorite character actors, both known for their tough blue-collar working class personas: Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy. Borgnine does what he does best, being the loud, but soft-hearted optimist. He acts almost like a giant in a small world, bumbling and a little dumb, but incredibly likable.
George Kennedy on the other hand I felt was a bit wasted. Borgnine is given a backstory. His doctor is on the plane as well (Christian Marquand) and it turns out Borgnine is feeling impotent and useless because he’s been labeled as being mentally exhausted. He views that as an insult, an accusation of insanity, but the truth is he just gives too much of himself. Unfortunately, the stress of feeling so vulnerable and worthless only hurts the situation.
Kennedy doesn’t get that much character time. Instead he’s around to be muscle to help build the new plane, dubbed The Phoenix in an allusion to the famous bird that rose from the ashes to fly again.
It’s a small gripe, but one that’s valid. Everybody else has some really interesting character work put into their roles, but Kennedy is just kind of there.
Robert Aldrich’s direction is up to snuff. He juggles a ton of characters and with the exception of George Kennedy he’s able to give service to damn near everybody without dragging the movie along for the 142 minute runtime. There’s a tension to the film that Aldrich can bring to his best stuff like The Dirty Dozen (which he followed this movie with) and, one of my personal favorites, Emperor of the North Pole. You’re not sure if this plan will work and you wouldn’t be at all surprised if it doesn’t.
Final Thoughts: I found this flick to be a great example of problem solving storytelling, or conflict resolution if you ever took a creative writing or screenwriting course. Everybody has their part to play to get out of this godforsaken desert, there’s a ticking clock as the amount of water diminishes, but behind it all is real, complex character work. That’s the big success of this movie, the atypical characters and even more atypical casting really makes this movie stand out.
Upcoming A Movie A Day Titles:
THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME (1955)
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (aka STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN) (1946)
BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)
AGE OF CONSENT (1969)
BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956)
Tomorrow we follow Sir Richard Attenborough over to the 1955 Ealing War Drama THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME! The next Keaton short will be One Week. See you folks then!
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