OKIE IN EXILE — The Flight of the Phoenix

Bobby Neal Winters
Bobby Winters

Going back to revisit the movies of your youth is a dangerous pastime. Sometimes you discover that a movie that you loved wasn’t actually very good. But there are other times too.

I’d remembered The Flight of the Phoenix with James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Christian Marquand, Ernest Borgnine, and Hardy Kruger as just another desert survival movie. It is a desert survival movie, but there is something else there that I see now but had missed as a youth. It is not just a man versus nature story, but a man versus man story in a more subtle way.

As the movie is from 1965, I will not worry about spoilers. A plane crashes in the desert; the survivors build a new plane from the wreckage of the old (hence the name Phoenix); they fly it to safety.

That paragraph describes the movie exactly as I remembered it. The fact that it was a story inhabited by well-drawn characters eluded me.

The thread that unites them is they are all flawed, broken men. Richard Attenborough plays the alcoholic navigator of the doomed plane. Ernest Borgnine is suffering from what we would now call PTSD. Jimmy Stewart is a burned out pilot whose best days are behind him. Hardy Kruger is an arrogant engineer.

The movie begins on the ill-fated plane. The pilot (played by Stewart) has not done due diligence in the aircraft’s upkeep and neither has the alcoholic navigator. They are taken off course by a dust storm, but as the radio is broken — and had been broken at the time of take-off — they are forced down hundreds of miles from even the tiniest outpost of civilization without anyone knowing. 

They wait for rescue but that is for nought as they are too far off course.

Then the engineer announces they can build a plane from the parts of their craft that are still salvageable. 

This is not met by as much enthusiasm as one might expect. It may be because the engineer is German; the rest of the survivors are American, British, and French; and the second world war is less than two decades in the past.

Or it may be because it wasn’t the pilot’s idea.

This was a surprise to me. I’d remembered Stewart as someone who played the same sort of affable character over and over. As the pilot of the downed plane, he’s not particularly affable; he’s not positive; he’s not nurturing; he’s not supportive. He’s not even a good man, much less a hero.

And the engineer doesn’t make it easy either. He’s arrogant, impatient, and hard-driving. He and the pilot don’t like each other at all.

The only thing that keeps the tenuous project alive is the desire to survive and the efforts of the alcoholic navigator as a diplomat.

In the end, they survive, but only after the blood sacrifice of two of the more virtuous characters.

It’s been two weeks since I rewatched it, but it has been on my mind often during those two weeks. The image it presents of broken people who don’t like each other being forced to work together to survive strikes me as a model we should examine.  

Maybe we should make them watch it in Washington.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube.