The Flight of the Phoenix
A downed airplane is a motley group of men’s only protection from the relentless desert sun, in this psychologically charged disaster epic, one of the all-time great survival movies. James Stewart is the veteran pilot whose Benghazi-bound plane—carrying passengers played by an unshaven ensemble of screen icons including Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Dan Duryea, Peter Finch, and George Kennedy—crash-lands in the remote Sahara. As tensions simmer among the survivors, they find themselves forced to trust a coldly logical engineer (Hardy Krüger) whose plan to get them out may just be crazy enough to work—or could kill them all. Directed with characteristic punch by Hollywood iconoclast Robert Aldrich, The Flight of the Phoenix balances adventure with human drama as it conducts a surprising and complex examination of authority, honor, and camaraderie among desperate men.
Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition master is sourced from a new 2K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
Much to my surprise it looks as though Criterion is using a new restoration and not just recycling an older one, yet, right off, it needs to be pointed out that, like a lot of recent Fox color restorations, the colors do have a warmer, desaturated look, at least compared to the old Fox DVD and Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, which do push reds. Still, when one considers the film, the colors offered here do suit it and its desert setting, so it ends up feeling entirely appropriate. Moving from that, black levels still look fine, and the blue sky has a nice hue to it.
The restoration work is impressive, looking to have removed just about every scratch and mark. The film is very grainy and while there is certainly room for improvement I thought it was rendered well for the most part, and it's one of Criterion's stronger encodes as of late. This leads to sharp details, especially in the close-ups of dirty faces covered in stubble, and moments involving sand storms or dust being blown about, offering up clean gradients. Oddly, a few long shots can have a slightlyt filtered look, grain looking a bit more muddled and flattened, but this is more the exception than the rule and may be a byproduct of Fox's restoration. Night scenes offer an adequate amount of range but shadow detail is still limited.
Warts and all, this new presentation has a far more film-like texture when compared to tprevious editions, and I was happy with how it has all turned out.
The film features a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. It’s a product of its time but it does manage to show some modest range and fidelity. There’s great depth in voices, and there are some louder moments (like the accident sequence early on) where audio is louder wihtout coming off distorted or problematic.
The features end up being surprisingly slim for what I would consider a bigger titled licensed from a major studio (20th Century Studios, formally 20th Century Fox). Along with the original trailer the disc also features a couple of interviews, including one between Aldrich biographer Alain Silver and filmmaker Walter Hill. The 19-minute discussion presents the two discussing how they first came to discover Aldrich before talking about his background and his films in the studio system. The discussion then veers off of Aldrich specifically to talk about The Flight of the Phoenix, touching on the original novel, what Aldrich saw in it and how the scenario and characters have been adapted to screen.
It’s a fine interview, with some interesting analysis with focus on what they feel are the film’s best moments, and the the next feature is also fine, an 18-minute interview with James Stewart biographer Donald Dewey, who discusses Stewart’s service in the United States Air Force during World War II and how that played into his film choices later, and how that plays into this film in particular. Unfortunately, as strong as they are, the two interviews leave one wanting, with Gina Telaroli’s short essay found in the insert (which touches on the generational gap between filmmakers of Aldrich’s day to the then-up-and-comers that would include Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and the rest) filling in a minor hole. But, I’ll give bonus points to Criterion’s cute little collectible: a cardboard plane that you can punch out and put together (with a minor spoiler in the artwork).
It feels like a quickly put together edition but I did find the presentation offered a strong upgrade over both the previous Fox DVD and the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray.