Fifty years ago this month, the Jimmy Stewart movie The Flight of the Phoenix was released to qualify for the 1965 Academy Awards, and received a general release in January 1966. Despite two nominations (no wins), the film was a box-office failure. Why? The movie seemed to have everything going for it: a well-known story from a best-selling novel, an all-star cast, a spectacular plane-crash sequence, belly dancing, and a bandit attack. There was even a grotesque death associated with the production. Sure, the budget got a little crazy but that’ll happen. People just tended to stay away in droves.
Happily the film’s stature has increased through the years and it’s become a minor cult hit. It’s always been popular with people who like airplanes in movies (and there are a lot of us — we were the original fans of Star Wars). And someone in Hollywood thought it was a good enough story to remake in 2004, with Dennis Quaid.
In commemoration of the original Flight of the Phoenix December 17, 1965 release, we will be showing the film as part of Heritage Library’s Classic Cinema at the Library series. Join us Saturday, December 19 at 1:30 for a discussion, with the movie itself following at 2:00!
Based on a 1964 survival-thriller by Elleston Trevor, the movie tells the story of a transport-plane crash deep in the Libyan desert. The aircraft and radio transmitter are both destroyed in the crash and the survivors are too far away, and with too few supplies, to simply walk home.
A bidding war erupted when the rights to Trevor’s novel came available soon after publication. 20th Century Fox won the rights and production began, under the capable hand of director and producer Robert Aldrich, probably best remembered for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Dirty Dozen (1967).
As soon as the rights were secured, Tallmantz Aviation was hired to both design and build the titular airplane and do the stunt flying (in those pre-computer graphics days).
Once again, the sand dunes of Buttercup Valley, California, just to the north and west of town, stood in for the Sahara, while the crew enjoyed the relative comforts of hotels in Yuma, and being only six hours from their own homes in Hollywood — much closer if they had a winter place in Palm Springs. (To film in the actual Sahara was considered prohibitively expensive.)
The principal cast and crew came to Yuma in May for an early-Summer shoot. In an August 1965 interview with Peter Bogdanovich, director Aldrich mentioned the weather:
“[The] location was wonderful. We had wonderful weather, it didn’t get as hot as it was supposed to got to 120 degrees, but it was supposed to be 130 degrees down there, that time of year.” Which is nonsense, of course — it doesn’t hit 130 until late July.
A 57th birthday party was held on-set May 20 for star James Stewart.
Tragedy visited the set late during second-unit shooting, when veteran stunt pilot Paul Mantz was killed on camera (the unscripted crash does not appear in the film). While trying one more touch-and-go landing in the dunes, Mantz apparently hit a dune too hard, breaking the fuselage just aft of the wing, resulting in the nose pitching sharply forward and killing him instantly.
All location exteriors had been completed and the crew had been back at 20th Century for a week, but the perfectionist in both director Aldrich and pilot Mantz demanded that last attempt to get a “perfect” shot. (If you’re really interested [and a little morbid], the crash footage is available on YouTube, but a much better and more complete article can be found on Aero Vintage Books’ website: http://www.aerovintage.com/phoenix.htm
Some of the cast and crew may have returned to Yuma for the Arizona Premiere at the downtown Yuma Theater (the city’s first sound-capable-theater!) on February 25, 1966. The film opened the next night, but tickets could be purchased for the first-night benefit, for the Yuma Fine Arts Association. We could find no record of who among the production company returned for the gala event, or how much money was raised by it.
Sadly, the film didn’t make back its money, taking in only about $3 million in the US and Canada, against a cost of between $3.8 and $5.3 million. (Rule of thumb, then and now, is that a film must make at least three times its production cost to be considered profitable. In contrast, the 2004 remake cost $45 million to make, and made about $34.5 million worldwide: a failure by a much higher margin!)
Come enjoy a discussion on the filming of The Flight of the Phoenix at 1:30, followed by a screening of the film at 2:00, at the Heritage Library on Saturday, December 19!
by Bryce Rumbles
Research by Jim Patrick and Laurie Boone