The Flight of the Phoenix is a 1965 American drama film starring James Stewart, produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, and based on the 1964 novel The Flight of the Phoenix by Elleston Trevor. The story describes a small group of men struggling to survive their aircraft’s emergency landing in the Sahara Desert, and stars Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Krüger and Ernest Borgnine. The ensemble cast includes Ian Bannen, Ronald Fraser, Christian Marquand, Dan Duryea and George Kennedy as other passengers on the aircraft.
Though the film was a failure at the box office, it has since gained a large following.
Frank Towns (James Stewart) is the pilot of a twin-engine Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo plane flying from Jaghbub to Benghazi in Libya; Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) is the navigator. The passengers include Capt. Harris (Peter Finch) and Sgt. Watson (Ronald Fraser) of the British Army; Dr. Renaud (Christian Marquand), a physician; Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger), a German aeronautical engineer; and an oil company accountant named Standish (Dan Duryea). There are also several oil workers, including Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine), a mentally-disturbed foreman; Ratbags Crow (Ian Bannen), a mean-spirited, sardonic Scot; Carlos (Alex Montoya) and his pet monkey; and Gabriel (Gabriele Tinti).
A sudden sandstorm disables the engines, forcing Towns to crash-land in the desert. As the aircraft careens to a stop, several oil drums and oil drilling tools break loose and severely injure Gabriel’s leg. Two other workers are killed.
The radio is unusable, and the survivors are too far off-course to be found and rescued. They have a large quantity of dates for food, but their water will last for only ten to fifteen days even if they avoid physical exertion. Harris and Carlos attempt to walk to an oasis. Carlos leaves his monkey behind with the men. Harris and Towns refuse to let Cobb go along, but Cobb defiantly follows and dies. Days later, Harris returns to the crash site alone and barely alive.
Meanwhile, Dorfmann has been working on a radical idea: He believes they can build a new aircraft from the wreckage. The C-82 has twin booms extending rearwards from each engine and connected by the horizontal stabilizer. Dorfmann’s plan is to attach the outer sections of the both wings to the left engine and left boom, discarding the center fuselage and both inner wing sections of the aircraft. The passengers will ride on top of the wings. Harris and Moran believe he is either joking or delusional. The argument is complicated by a personality clash between Towns, a proud old traditionalist aviator, and Dorfmann, an equally proud young technician. Moran struggles to keep the peace.
Although Towns is resistant, Renaud points out that activity and any hope will keep the men’s morale up, and so Towns agrees with the plan. Dorfmann supervises the reconstruction, while Towns remains doubtful. During the work, Gabriel commits suicide by slitting his wrist, making the men so depressed that they contemplate giving up the new plane’s construction. Dorfmann is caught exceeding his water ration, but explains that he alone has been working continuously, and promises to not do it again while demanding they all work equally hard. Moran talks Towns into resuming work on the aircraft.
When the new aircraft is almost complete, Standish labels it “The Phoenix” after the mythical bird that is reborn from its ashes. Any good mood, however, is quashed after a band of natives comes nearby. While the others (and the aircraft) remain hidden, Harris and Renaud go to ask them for help – and are murdered. Additionally, Towns and Moran learn that Dorfmann designs model airplanes rather than full-sized ones. Dorfmann claims that the principles are exactly the same, and that in many aspects models require much more exacting designs and can be less forgiving than full-size aircraft, but Towns and Moran are horrified at the idea of flying a plane made by a man who works with “toys”. Without any other choice, however, they decide to forge ahead with the plan.
Just as the water supplies are exhausted, the Phoenix is completed. Only seven starter cartridges are available for the engine, and the first four startup attempts are unsuccessful. Towns decides to fire the fifth cartridge with the ignition off, to clear the engine’s cylinders, which he does over Dorfmann’s strenuous objection. The next startup is successful. The men pull the Phoenix to a nearby hilltop and climb onto the wings. When Towns guns the engine, the Phoenix slides down the hill and along a lake bed before taking off. After landing at an oasis with a manned oil rig, the men celebrate and Towns and Dorfmann are reconciled.