James Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965): Movie Trivia & Fun Facts
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James Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965): Movie Trivia & Fun Facts

Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix debuted on December 15, 1966. Amazing The Flight of the Phoenix movie trivia and fun facts encompass James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, Dan Duryea, Elleston Trevor, Peter Finch, Connie Francis and Hardy Kruger.

Twentieth Century Fox's The Flight of the Phoenix flew into movie theaters in 1965. James Stewart stars as Captain Frank Towns, the pilot of a cargo plane which crashes into the Sahara desert, pitting its crew and passengers against the harsh elements. Here are 21 The Flight of the Phoenix movie trivia items and fun facts...

1. The Flight of the Phoenix is based on the novel of the same name by British author Elleston Trevor, a pseudonym for Trevor Dudley Smith (1920-1995). Following a thumbs-up review in Life magazine, several Hollywood agents attempted to purchase the movie rights to Trevor's thriller, including one representing actor James Stewart. But the eventual winner was director Robert Aldrich, who readily agreed to cast Jimmy Stewart in the starring role.

James Stewart as Captain Frank Towns - Twentieth Century Fox

2. Robert Aldrich produced and directed The Flight of the Phoenix for The Associates & Aldrich Company and Twentieth Century Fox. Lukas Heller wrote the taut screenplay.

3. The Flight of the Phoenix was filmed from April 26 to August 13, 1965. Although the movie's setting was the sprawling Sahara Desert, filming locales used were Buttercup Valley and Yuma, Arizona, and Pilot Knob and Imperial County, California.

4. The main props employed in The Flight of the Phoenix were three Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo planes and an experimental aircraft called the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1.

5. Originally a C-82 Packet cargo plane, the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1 was designed by Otto Timm and constructed by Tallmantz Aviation Inc. It measured 42 feet in length and had a wingspan of 45 feet. Its power plant, taken from a North American T-6, as were its wheels and various other parts, was a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 nine-cylinder radial engine with 650 horsepower. The wings were pieced together from a Beechcraft C-45 while the wing, tail and undercarriage wire bracing was made of clothesline and the fuselage and empennage constructed of simple plywood. The plane’s open cockpit was purposely shallow and primitive, allowing a person to stand behind the pilot while strapped to a stringer.

6. Tragedy struck The Flight of the Phoenix production on July 8, 1965, in Buttercup Valley, Arizona. Paul Mantz, a veteran pilot with over 25,000 flying hours, along with co-pilot Bobby Rose, crashed in the experimental Tallmantz Phoenix P-1. The 61-year-old Mantz was killed instantly while Rose was thrown free of the wreckage, suffering a broken pelvis and left shoulder. Mantz had been substituting in the cockpit that fateful day for his injured business partner Frank Tallman.

7. As per law, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) duly investigated the Phoenix crash. Their ruling:  the plane's airframe had failed due to overload stresses and alcohol consumption by pilot Mantz prior to the flight had impaired his "efficiency and judgment."

8. Stunt pilot Paul Mantz was later laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Over 400 mourners attended Mantz's funeral, including James Stewart and General Jimmy Doolittle. Mantz is eulogized at the end of the picture: “It should be remembered …that Paul Mantz, a fine man and a brilliant flyer gave his life in the making of this film…”

9. In order to finish the film, producers rented a vintage North American O-47 observation plane from the Ontario Air Museum which was used to complete the flying sequences following the crash of the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1.

10. James Stewart excels in the role of the grizzled, veteran pilot Frank Towns. Stewart of course was a flier in real life, having served as a bomber pilot with the U.S. Eighth Air Force operating out of England during World War II.

11. Richard Attenborough plays Lew Moran, Frank Towns' longtime friend and the plane's navigator. Lew has a drinking problem, nipping at a bottle during the flight in order to calm his nerves. In a pique of anger, Towns calls Lew “a second-rate navigator in a fifth-rate outfit.”

12. Hardy Kruger plays Heinrich Dorfmann, a German engineer who designs model airplanes. The biggest model they make is the NEU Adler, which boasts of a wingspan of two feet.

13. The cargo plane in the film is referred to as a "sky truck," belonging to the Arabco Oil Company in North Africa.

14. Two British Army personnel are aboard the plane as passengers. There's Captain Harris (Peter Finch), a by-the-book officer who's described as being "excessively British" by fellow countryman Lew Moran and Sergeant Watson (Ronald Fraser). The embittered Watson tells fellow passenger "Ratbags" Crow (Ian Bannen) that he was a "boy soldier." His father had marched him down to the recruiting office in 1934 and he's been in His Majesty's Army ever since.

15. Ernest Borgnine plays E. "Trucker" Cobb, the paranoid American oil field worker with the transistor radio who attempts to follow Captain Harris on his impossible 106-mile trek to the nearest oasis. Cobb is found dead in the desert, with his "E. Cobb" signature scrawled into the sand. 

16. Ian Bannen as the salty "Ratbags" Crow cops one of the funniest lines in the film. Stranded out in the desert like this, Crow says he has the perfect story for the London Daily Mail upon his return to civilization: “How I Stopped Smoking in Three Days.” 

17. Dan Duryea plays Mr. Standish, a company official with Arabco Oil. It is Standish who christens the smaller rebuilt plane the Phoenix, painting the name on the side of the fuselage. Standish also offers his wry take on insurance companies during a conversation with Captain Towns: “Insurance companies move in mysterious ways. Like God, of course, but not half as generous.”

18. Connie Francis sings "Senza Fine," delivered via E. "Trucker" Cobb's transistor radio.

19. After being called a "toy plane designer," the strident Heinrich Dorfmann gives Captain Towns and Lew Moran a little lecture on the history of flight, telling them that model planes were successfully flying 50 years before the Wright Brothers ever got off the ground. In 1851, he further states with authority, Henson and Stringfellow built a rubber band-powered model that flew 600 meters before encountering an obstruction.

James Stewart and fellow survivors prepare to take off in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) - Twentieth Century Fox

20. The Flight of the Phoenix officially opened on December 15, 1965, though many moviegoers would not see the film until 1966. Reported the Hollywood trade paper Variety: "Robert Aldrich's filmic translation of the Elleston Trevor book is an often-fascinating and superlative piece of filmmaking highlighted by standout performances and touches that show producer-director at his best." The Flight of the Phoenix earned two Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Ian Bannen) and Best Film Editing (Michael Luciano).

21. Director John Moore remade The Flight of the Phoenix in 2004 starring Dennis Quaid as Captain Frank Towns. Deceased crew and cast members from the original 1965 film include producer/director Robert Aldrich (1918-1983), screenwriter Lukas Heller (1930-1988), composer Frank De Vol (1911-1999), James Stewart (1908-1997), Peter Finch (1916-1977), Ian Bannen (1928-1999), Ronald Fraser (1930-1997), Christian Marquand (1927-2000), Dan Duryea (1907-1968), Gabriele Tinti (1932-1991) and Alex Montoya (1907-1970).

“Your theory’s fine, but you get this, mister…that engine’s rated at two-thousand horsepower and if I was ever fool enough to let it get started up it’d shake your patched-up pile of junk into a thousand pieces, and cut us up into mincemeat with the propeller.” - James Stewart as Captain Towns on Heinrich Dorfmann's proposed hybrid airplane

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Copyright © 2011 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved. 

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Comments (2)

One ofmy all-time favorite movies.

I love Jimmy Stewart...even old and crusty looking. I'll have to check this one out.