Remake Recon: The Flight of the Phoenix

Remake Recon Flight of the Phoenix

Flight of the Phoenix is a 1964 novel by Elleston Trevor. It tells the story of a plane crash in the middle of the desert. With no chance of being rescued the survivors of the crash cling to any kind of hope and begin rebuilding the downed aircraft to fly them out of there.

The novel was adapted in 1965 as a feature film directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring an all-star ensemble of actors that include Jimmy Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Hardy Kruger, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Dan Duryea and George Kennedy.

I’ve always loved The Flight of the Phoenix and I’ve always been a big fan of Jimmy Stewart. I look at Phoenix as one of this last great movies he did in his career. And he did a lot of great movies!

General movie audiences probably think of Stewart as just playing a lot of nice guys onscreen, but he played his fair share of complicated characters. Like in Phoenix, he’s a pretty unpleasant, stubborn guy. And he’s really good in it!

After the plane crash and realizing the odds that the group have little chance of being rescued, Heinrich Dorfmann (Kruger) reveals his idea of rebuilding the wreckage. He is immediately dismissed by Stewart’s Captain Towns with a second thought. He has enough problems with the rest of the survivors and this dire situation that he doesn’t need this goofy little guy to further shake things up.

The one thing about these kind of films where you toss a grab-bag of different characters into a seemingly hopeless situation together and they’re forced to work together, even when they don’t like each other much, is exploiting that aspect to it. That’s where the drama come in and Phoenix does that beautifully.

The supporting characters are not just background like the hills of sand, but they’re all given enough shadings to make them interesting. The film just doesn’t hover on the leads and give them everything to do, but all the survivors have their own little things going on.

The disgust Sgt. Watson (Ronald Fraser) has for his superior Captain Harris (Finch), the disturbed resentment Cobb (Borgnine) has aimed at Dr. Renaud (Christian Marquand) and the sarcastic humor Ratbags (Ian Bannen) consistently throws at the meek Standish (Duryea). Bannen is so funny in this film.

The Flight of the Phoenix 1965 Jimmy Stewart
Stewart and the gang hoping for news

All these little side stories and conflicts make watching all these character a lot more interesting. It’s kind of like an episode of Love Boat – all the guest stars are given some kind of story to play with.

Meanwhile Captain Towns is guilt-ridden, but is still obstinate enough that he won’t even consider Dorfmann’s crazy plan. When the group finally gathers around to hear how Dorfmann plans on doing this they’re all a bit confused and skeptical, but at this point they’re willing to listen to any suggestions since really no one has any other ideas. It will take Town’s flying expertise and as the groups leader to either support Dorfmann or not.

Naturally he doesn’t.

Town’s co-pilot and friend Lew is trying to talk sense to him and they have their own personal clashes. Frank and Lew are not just boringly going along with each other – they’re getting into arguments, tossing insults at each other that cut one another pretty deeply. It’s not until Lew breaks down that Towns begrudgingly agrees to go along with Dorfmann’s plan and the group begins to work together.

And all the while Towns and Dorfmann battle each other, each one trying to maintain some form leadership over the other. And each of them are stubborn enough they’re not willing to bend, even when they know it’s jeopardizing everyones lives.

the cast of The Flight of the Phoenix 1965
The cast and director of The Flight of the Phoenix

Meanwhile, the sun is baking down, the water is running out and hope is fading. There is a real sense of urgency to the story. The graveyard keeps getting more occupants and the guys start to walk around like zombies. These guys really start to look like hell.

Sometimes I’m amazed 20th Century Fox didn’t force Aldrich to have the plane be carrying some cases of aloe and lip balm, just to use as an excuse for the actors to look a bit more movie star-ish and not so awful.

I won’t get into the finale just yet (although if you haven’t seen the film you can probably figure it out). But the ending is almost secondary in the film – the real fun is getting there and seeing this group interact in these harsh conditions. With the actors and the performances they give you could probably have gotten a great story with these characters being….anywhere! They could be standing in line at the DMV and it would probably make a fascinating story.

So, overall fantastic movie. Man against man, man against nature, man against himself….and men against Ernest Borgnine.

2004

I don’t know why they bothered.

Thirty-nine years later Fox remade Phoenix. This time Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Giovanni Ribisi, Miranda Otto and Hugh Laurie are the stars.

Now some might think it’s not fair to compare an original film to a remake – tough! I figure if they’re going to tell the same story, use the same source material and call it by the same title, then I get to decide which version is the one I prefer and is more worth my time to sit through and be told the same story.

I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a remake, have an open mind and give the film a chance to be entertaining. But if it’s a remake to a really good film then everyone better be bringing their A-Game.

I always thought if you’re going to remake a movie, you should try to improve on it or try something different with the premise. 2004’s Flight of the Phoenix does neither.

I will say some of the shots of the plane flying over the desert look really nice though.

Director John Moore offers nothing new, fresh or different in the remake. He tells the same story in a much less exciting, suspenseful way than the original did. This Phoenix became one of the most inconsequential, pointless remakes I’ve seen.

cast of Flight of Phoenix 2004
The cast of 2004’s Flight of the Phoenix

After a bit of setup with Towns (Quaid) and his co-pilot (Gibson) picking up a bunch of oil workers at a closed drilling station, we get the crash scene, a sequence that Hollywood loves to make nowadays. And from here the entire film takes a nosedive.

We get stranded in the sand with a bunch of uninteresting, stupid characters who we care nothing about.

Unlike the original, the remake substitutes all the drama, tension and character clashes with a bunch of action set-pieces that are not done nearly as well as they probably thought they were.

One of the most blatant, undemanding ways films take to ‘update’ or ‘remake’ an older film is to shake up the casting, have a more racially diverse cast, therefore making it a bit more 21st century. In the original they were just a bunch of white guys. Well, here we’re going to have some black guys, an Arab guy and even a woman!

Ok, so they’re taking the politically correct route. Fine. I don’t have a problem with that – if the movie fleshed those character out more than them just being, the black guys, the Arab guy and the woman.

Miranda Otto Dennis Quaid Flight of Phoenix
Miranda Otto and Quaid

Throughout the film I never learn much about these people and therefore never cared if they would survive. At times I was hoping they wouldn’t. I completely forget about them when they leave the screen.

Quaid is a likable actor, plus he has better abs than Stewart. But this is not one of his better performances.

Quaid is an actor who I’ve always liked, despite him not being in many really great movies. Throughout his career he just never reached that A-List status that I used to think he was surely going to reach one day. Sure, I’ve liked a few films he’s done (Dreamscape, The Big Easy, The Rookie) but the misfires far outnumber the better films in his career. I still think his best film he’s ever done was one of his first, 1979’s Breaking Away.

His Captain Towns is a much less dense character than Stewart played. Quaid mainly plays the typical arrogant, hotshot pilot throughout the film. It’s Quaid playing a waterdowned Han Solo.

The construction of the plane, which is the centerpiece of the story, isn’t an exhausting exercise the group has to endure. Unlike the original where they had to jerry-rig tools and the physical toll it takes on everyone, the remake conveniently provides them all the equipment they need for the job. BORING!

This might be a blessing for the characters in the story, but this convenient stroke of luck robs us of witnessing an additional obstacle they must overcome. Watching how they manage to get the construction done and getting all ‘MacGyver’ with creative solutions is much more thrilling than the characters being handed all the required tools.

There is no feeling of menace in this retelling of the story. The conditions of being in the middle of the desert with a limited water supply and little chance of being rescued doesn’t seem to be that much of a concern to anyone. At times it looks like they’re just having a big beach BBQ out there with a crashed plane lying in the middle of it.

Dennis Quaid abs Flight of Phoenix
Quaid catching some rays

Whereas the original had some excitement between every character we would meet, here we get none of that. It’s really not that compelling to see acouple of guys yuk it up compared to a guy who wouldn’t mind seeing this other guy walk out in the desert and never come back.

The majority of struggles that were played out between the original group is substituted for action and glossy special effects here and those are nowhere near as memorable. The snazzy scenes pass quickly and then we have to go back to the group of characters who are boring and we don’t care anything about. It just becomes a very tedious film to watch.

The film seems to know how dreary the scenes are with all these characters interacting. The only solution it comes up with to shake things up and get any drama to happen is throwing a sandstorm at them or having Arabs attack them or rolling the plane around with them inside. When it’s the characters by themselves it’s torture to sit through.

Even the whole decision whether to trust this shady little guy and should they try to rebuild the plane or not isn’t even capitalized on. It’s just rushed through. There’s no sense that this is a life or death decision they’re making that could potentially kill them. It’s just “yeah, why not let’s build it”.

Flight of Phoenix movie
They’re waiting for something to happen

I will say Ribisi does a fun performance as Elliot – the updated Dorfmann, but even the way his character is written here he isn’t as engaging as Kruger was. For one the skepticism he got from the rest of the group as a German. At the time of the original WWII was still fresh in people’s minds and this distrust of him that was based on personal prejudice was yet another thing that ignited conflict.

And while Ribisi is clearly made up to look like Kruger – he’s got the blonde hair, the glasses – there’s really no reason for it. He’s just this strange, weird little guy.

In fact, it might have been better had they made Elliot an Arab character. After these oil workers are pillaging oil from the middle east, not respecting any of their culture and just dismissing them, the one person who can possibly save everyone is an Arab. That would have given the characters a tough pill to swallow.

Also the original played on Stewart’s age and his unwillingness to accept change. He’s holding onto the older ways things were done and is cynical towards the new and young. This is a recurring argument between Towns, Dorfmann and Lew. This is all dropped in the remake. Although the plane does get hit by lightning!

SPOILERS AHEAD!

One of the fun things about the original is the revelation that Dorfmann is not in fact an airplane designer, but he works on model planes. Towns and Lew accidentally stumble onto this discovery, which leads to Attenborough having a great cinematic breakdown.

The two men want to keep this fact a secret from the rest of the group and confront Dorfmann about it and explain that it might upset them. Dorfmann is completely taken aback that this piece of of information has shaken their confidence in him. He views his model making background as being no different as designing ‘the real thing’.

Through the course of the film he makes no conscious attempts at trying to hide this from anyone. In fact, when Towns and Lew finally learn about his expertise in model aircraft by flipping through a catalog from his company they are completely stunned. Dorfmann proudly shows them the models he worked on. As Lew states, “he didn’t even keep anything from us”.

In the remake this is once again handled differently (and not for the better). The same secret about Eliott comes out, however this time the character was intentionally trying to hide it from his comrades the entire time.

When Quaid’s Towns finds the catalog and makes the discovery Elliot seems fully aware how everyone will react and was attempting to keep them from ever learning of it. There’s this confrontation as the group is informed of it. This scene makes Elliot appear as a much more self-aware, sinister character than the original Dorfmann.

Flight of the Phoenix movie 1965
I felt the same way while watching the remake

I can go on, but it’s clear which of these two versions of the story I prefer. The remake is a pretty paltry retelling of the story. While watching it I kept thinking to myself, “Why?”

Why did they want to remake this film? What was their goal? They couldn’t have been drawn to the story since they never explore and capitalize on its dramatic components.

The remake itself doesn’t have any of the drama or suspense the original film contained. The remake doesn’t seem interested in the characters or the emotional or physical struggles the story thrusts onto them. Did they just want to remake it so they could film a plane crashing into the desert? I just don’t understand what their motivation was for wanting to remake a film that told this particular story perfectly the first time around. It all seems so pointless.

The original is a great film that never seemed to attain ‘classic’ status that Aldrich’s following film The Dirty Dozen would reach. They’re both real macho kind of guy movies about a group being forced to work together under extreme circumstances. Both really good films. But I think I lean towards Phoenix as to the one I personally enjoy more.

Phoenix is a thrilling story about survival. So if you’re going to watch one Flight of the Phoenix go with the original. And if you’ve only seen the remake, don’t let that stop you from watching the 1965 version and seeing how this story was told so much better the first time around.

 

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