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James Stewart
Richard Attenborough
Peter Finch
Hardy Kruger
Ernest Borgnine
Ian Bannen
Ronald Fraser
Christian Marquand
Dan Duryea
George Kennedy
Gabriel Tinti

Robert Aldrich


Time: 142 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama/Adventure

Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Bannen) and Best Film Editing.

What do you get when you strand a dozen amazing actors in the middle of the desert? An intense and exciting drama that spans every emotion and answers that post-WW2 question: Can you really trust a German? Stewart plays Frank Towns, the scruffy, obstinate pilot who crashes this motley group into a seemingly no win situation. Sure, a raging sandstorm is mostly to blame, but, in this instance, Towns' fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants skills aren't enough to keep them airborne. Once the plane comes to a halt – 130 miles off-course – it quickly becomes clear that those killed in the crash may have been the lucky ones. Stranded in the Sahara Desert with limited food and water, this egotistical group of soldiers and businessmen grasp at any straw that might secure their survival.

Rather than wait around and die (from thirst, hunger or exposure), they latch onto a rather wacky idea proposed by Heinrich Dorfmann. He's an aircraft designer and he believes, after looking over the parts available, that they can rebuild a smaller craft capable of flying them to civilization. Town's co-pilot, the alcoholic, yet open-minded Lew Moran (Attenborough) backs Dorfmann's plan even though Towns thinks they have no chance of succeeding. Moran figures they may still die, but at least they'll go down trying. A sliver of hope is better than merely waiting to die. Towns would be more amenable to the plan if it weren't for Dorfmann's pushy and arrogant behavior. Even though he got them into this mess, Towns still considers himself the leader of the group and Dorfmann's superior attitude makes his commands hard to swallow. The rest of the men have their own issues with the situation. Some aid the cause, others do what they damn well please. None are guaranteed to get out alive.

"He never even kept anything from us."

You'd think that watching a group of dirty, cranky men building a plane in the middle of the desert would be tedious and boring; however, this tale is filled with self-sacrifice, suspense, betrayal, honor, liars, loons and several surprises that will render you speechless. Every character gets their moment to shine, laying bare their faults, fears and dreams of the future and leaving an indelible imprint on the story. The power struggle between Towns and Dorfmann is at the heart of the film, but the other gentlemen play key roles in how the final showdown shakes out. There's not a single character that's truly likable and more than a few that are downright loathsome, namely Ronald Fraser. He plays an army sergeant who pretends to be injured to escape from the honorable, yet demeaning demands of his commanding officer (Finch). Since he's most likely going to die, one sort of understands his little rebellion which allows him to live his last few days on his own terms. Unfortunately his selfishness causes a few of the other survivors to meet ugly ends, making his trickery seem smart and revolting all at the same time.

By failing to elevate any one character as the film's hero, the audience is forced to pull for the survival of everyone, which grants the mission's success or failure all the more power. In order to escape back to civilization, they must work together. This all or nothing gambit generates incredible tension within the story and between the characters. The fact that they only have enough water for 11 days cranks up the stress even more. Though the battles are bitter, the acting never boils over into melodrama. Stewart and Kruger anchor the film with their subtle and commanding turns as the two men upon whom the fate of all rests. Sometimes life demands we trust people we dislike and squelch our own beliefs for the greater good, a lesson learned hard here. It's clear that none of these men, even though they share this horrible ordeal, are going to end up as friends. This is a tale of survival, period. It's a battle between life and death with a very small margin for error that shows how resilient the human spirit can be.

Aldrich and company distinctly bring to life the unrelenting force of the desert, leaving no doubt in the viewer's mind how perilous this situation is. The brightness blinds and the heat practically melts the screen. The characters constant thirst will have you reaching for a cool beverage. The Sahara is an ugly and wily enemy with plenty of time to claim its' next victim. The brilliant cinematography and perfectly-paced editing illuminate one emotional sucker punch after another. The finished plane is their Holy Grail, their last attempt to secure salvation. Though it's obvious someone must survive (the film is based on a true story), even up to the last moment you're never quite sure if they're actually going to get off the ground. When they do, it's almost anti-climactic since the main thrust of the film is the hope generated by the building, not the actual rescue. There are many action films made with all-star casts, but rarely do they encompass such depth of character along with the adventure. PHOENIX is a powerful experience that shows what great cinema is all about.

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