Friday, February 20, 2015

The Flight of the Phoenix: Two Movies, One Novel

I just finished watching the 1965 movie The Flight of the Phoenix, in the process breaking one of my most sacred rules when it comes to books vs. movies.  With rare exception, have I ever watched a movie before reading the novel upon which the film is based.  I broke that rule with this one.

Phoenix is the story of an old, beat-up airplane that crashes deep inside the Sahara Desert with an assortment of 14 passengers aboard.  The passengers are mostly oil field personnel, but there are a handful of others aboard, including some military personnel, and one man who has come to the desert simply to visit his oil-worker brother.  

As their water begins to run out, the survivors have two choices: they can sit around in the shade of the wreckage and wait to die from dehydration, or they can try to build a smaller plane from the remains of the larger one they crash-landed in.  They go for it.

The movie is wonderfully cast with a rather grizzled looking Jimmy Stewart in the roll of the pilot, supported by an ensemble cast of Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Kruger, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Ronald Fraser, Christian Marquand, George Kennedy, and Dan Duryea.  This was one of the shortest two-hour movies I have watched in a long time - never once was I tempted to check the clock to see how much time was left.

Cover of the 2004 Re-release
The movie is based on a 1964 novel of the same name that has probably reached the "forgotten novel" stage by now.  I don't think its even in print anymore, but I'm going to grab a used copy somewhere if that turns out to be the case.  It was written by Trevor Dudley Smith under the pen name Elleston Trevor, and I'm guessing that it was popular enough in its day that I should be able to find a copy someplace fairly easily.

Bonus bit of movie trivia for you:  

A test pilot was killed simulating take-off the the "rebuilt" airplane and the plane was destroyed in the crash.  A completely different airplane was borrowed and used in all the close-ups that still had to be shot after the tragic accident.  

The 1965 movie was successful and popular.  It was re-made in 2004 in a version starring Dennis Quaid that did not fare nearly so well.

Trailer for the 1965 movie:

Trailer for the 2004 movie (in which glaring changes to the 1965 film were made).  It's easy to see why it flopped in comparison to the original film.

Footage of the terrible crash that killed stuntman Paul Mantz who was simulating takeoff of the reconstructed airplane. Right up to the actual crash, this footage was used in the 1965 move (in color).


  1. :) Book, first or film, first. Always a dilemma. I've often liked the film better if I have not read the book yet. Usually, if I read the book first, I'm disappointed in the film version. What a great cast for this one!

    1. My main problem with seeing the movie first is that I come to the book with preconceived notions about how all the characters look and sound. It doesn't seem to bother me as much when it's the other way around for some reason. It really is a good movie, Jenclair, and I'm glad I found it last night. I was in the mood for a movie from the fifties or sixties and that one was a perfect fit.

  2. I liked the cast of the 2nd version, but my quibble is that they never quite seemed like they were starving and thirsting to death like they did in the first version. As for the book being in print, I found it about 5 years ago.

    1. From the looks of the trailer, the second movie seems to overemphasize the "craziness" of the German airplane designer. It was much more subtle in the first film and that made it seem more natural and believable to me. I haven't found the book locally yet, but I'm sure it's out there on the net somewhere, so that's my next thing to do.