Book into Film – Elleston Trevor’s “The Flight of the Phoenix”

British novelist Elleston’s Trevor’s The Flight of the Phoenix (published in 1964) was a lean 80,000 words, a far cry from the blockbuster airport reads like Exodus by Leon Uris and James Michener’s Hawaii. But its length made it an ideal subject for a film, the shorter novel tending to stick close to the main story. The author’s speciality was authentic detail, an early career as a racing driver and flight engineer inspiring in him a love for all things mechanical. He knew what made things work and gaps in his knowledge were filled by assiduous research. He was an assiduous man, with 36 books since 1943 under ten pseudonyms, one being Adam Hall whose bestselling spy tale The Berlin Memorandum would be filmed as The Quiller Memorandum (1966). He had tackled aviation before, most prominently in Squadron Airborne (1955). But it’s worth comparing how this book was translated to the screen compared to The Berlin Memorandum, which, as discussed in a previous review, owed much of its screen personality to intervention by playwright Harold Pinter.

The film follows the book’s structure with only a couple of deviations. The main one was changing the nationality of the aircraft designer from British to German. Originally named Stringer he was a testy young individual prone to taking offence and going off in big sulks. There was a German in the Trevor version, Kepel, a young man who is injured in the crash. But there was no handy doctor on board and fewer different nationalities. To build up James Stewart as the heroic pilot and as a consequence to add meat to his clash with German designer Hardy Kruger, in the film he bravely goes out into the desert to find one of the passengers, but that does not occur in the book. Other changes were minor – in the book the passengers are occasionally able to supplement their drinking rations by scraping night frost off  the plane and at a later point in the book they drain the blood from a dead camel in order to dilute their drinking water. While there is an encounter with Arab nomads in both book and film, the movie’s approach to this incident is much more straightforward, ignoring some of the detail supplied in the book.  

Of course, a novel allows for the inclusion of far greater detail. And while that provides the skeleton for story development, Trevor gives greater insight into the characters than can be achieved on screen. The author allows each character an internal monologue, through which device we discover their motivations, history and fears. This approach combines the present with the past, presenting a more rounded cast of characters. While the inherent tension of the situation drives the story along, the author switches between characters to keep the reader fully engaged. The cowardly sergeant (played by Ronald Fraser in the film) is the biggest beneficiary, portrayed as a more sympathetic person than in the film. The book is a stand-alone enjoyment, Trevor’s writing skills, his grasp of character, creation of tension and his  engineering knowledge (bear in mind he invented the idea of building another plane out of the wrecked one) make the novel every bit as enthralling as the film.  

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) ****

Take twelve condemned men, drop them in the desert hundreds of miles from safety with only enough water to last two weeks, and nothing to eat but dates, and make them work together to effect salvation from their predicament. Not exactly the premise for The Dirty Dozen (1967) but not far off. Flight of the Phoenix appears a dummy run for director Robert Aldrich’s more ambitious war picture, not least because in terms of structure it is only eight minutes shorter. There are no women in the picture (except those appearing in a mirage) and the men, of all different types, must come together or die in the savage heat.

You might argue that the audience for this kind of picture no longer exists. In the 1960s there was a big market for the Nevil Shute/Hammond Innes/Elleston Trevor type of novel which contained a lot of practical detail at a time when heavy industry – mining, shipbuilding, oil, car manufacture – was a massive employer and the ordinary man had an easy understanding of – and was often fascinated by – the principles of engineering. Bear in mind that this was the era of space rockets and there was excitement about man’s planned flight to the moon.

During a sandstorm a small twin-engined plane carrying passengers from an oil field crash lands in the Sahara. James Stewart as the pilot was a casting trick. In a previous aerial adventure No Highway (1951), Stewart was the ordinary joe challenging authority. Here he is the authority figure challenged and part of the film’s guile is the way he has to concede that authority to the one person on board everyone hates, arrogant German aircraft designer  Hardy Kruger. The global job lot of passengers includes: two soldiers, martinet officer Peter Finch and his mutinous sergeant Ronald Fraser; Richard Attenborough as an alcoholic navigator; oil worker Ernest Borgnine on the brink of insanity; Scotsman Ian Bannen reprising the sarcastic troublemaker of previous desert drama Station Six Sahara (1963); Frenchman Christian Marquand as a doctor; veteran Dan Duryea as the company accountant; Italian Gabriele Tinti; George Kennedy and Alex Montoya; plus a monkey of no fixed abode. The monkey, incidentally, is cleverly utilised. He’s not a sentimental or cute device, there to soften a hard guy or for comic relief, but Aldrich often cuts to his squeals or his face when there is imminent danger.

Two passengers are already dead, one is seriously injured. They have been blown so far off-course they will be impossible to locate. There is only enough water for ten or eleven days. It is a given in such circumstances that tempers will explode and hidden secrets surface. Were they guaranteed rescue those two pegs would be enough to hang a movie on.  Since there is no such guarantee, this becomes a picture about survival. The obvious manoeuvre comes into play on the fifth day. Finch determines to walk to safety, over 100 miles in deadly heat. But it’s not a trek picture either, the engineers present know the risks. Mountains will cause false compass readings and those going will walk around in circles.

What? I can get that magnetism in the mountains can affect a compass but where does the walking round in circles enter the equation? Because, explains Attenborough patiently, a person does not automatically walk in a straight line if there is no actual road. If right-handed then you’ll walk in a left-hand direction because the right leg is more developed than the other and takes a longer stride and there’s nothing you can do about it. This doesn’t matter if you are walking along an actual path but in the desert with no road markings it’s lethal. And this is the beginning of a bag of what would otherwise be deemed trivia except that such facts are a matter of life and death. This is a movie about reality in a way that no other realistic or authentic picture has or will be. Physics is the dominant force, not imagination.

Finch’s sergeant fakes an injury to avoid going. The mad Borgnine, originally prevented from leaving, sneaks away in the night. James Stewart, in courageous mode, goes after him. While he is away, Kruger carries out a character assassination. And continues on his return – “the only thing outstanding about you is your stupidity.” By now though, Attenborough has warmed to Kruger’s insane idea of building a single-engined plane out of the wreck of the twin-engined one. And that becomes the crux of the story. Can they build this weird contraption? Will they manage it before they die of thirst? Will rising tensions prevent completion? Are they fit enough after days in the boiling heat to manage the herculean tasks involved?

Aldrich keeps psychological tension at fever pitch, helped along by the pessimistic Stewart and the wildly pessimistic Bannen, needling everyone in sight, who delivers lines like “how I stopped smoking in three days.” Stewart and Attenborough have to come to terms with the parts they played in the plane crashing, Fraser with his cowardice. Issues arise over leadership and water theft.

I won’t spoil it for you by mentioning the incident that threatens to demolish the entire project. But the finale is truly thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff and the skeletal monstrosity being constructed looks hardly capable of carrying the monkey let alone a full complement of passengers. Aldrich is a master of the group shot with unerring composition and often movement within the frame or just a simple bit of business by an actor, for example George Kennedy at one point tapping his hand against his leg, ensuring that the film does not solely focus on a couple of characters. Sometimes all Aldrich needs to make his points are reaction shots.

Aldrich called on Lukas Heller for the screenplay, having worked with him on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Aldrich’s son William and son-in-law Peter Bravos had bit parts, killed off during the crash.

Flight of the Phoenix virtually invented the self-help rescue genre that relied on ingenious mechanical ideas – rather than more simplistic notions – such as later absorbed in movies like Apollo 13 (1995) and The Martian  (2015). Aldrich’s mastery of group dynamics would stand in him in good stead for The Dirty Dozen. A terrific movie and well worth seeing.

See also also the companion piece – Book into Filmwhich is posted tomorrow.