Face Off: Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

The original Flight of the Phoenix is sort of an unsung classic. Sure, people still watch it a half-century later, catch it on TCM, and it was at least popular enough for somebody to remake it in 2004. But take even just a quick look at the incredible  cast and try to tell me Flight of the Phoenix has the popularity it deserves today. Jimmy Stewart! Richard Attenborough! Ernest Borgnine! Peter Finch! George Kennedy! Ian Bannen, for chrissake! It’s the ensemble equivalent of Age of Ultron except all of the actors are good and are playing characters instead of cardboard cutouts.

Here’s the trouble: in terms of plot, the 2004 remake is one of the most faithful remakes ever remade. It’s nearly beat-for-beat as far as the major story points are concerned, and even some of the lines of dialogue propelling those story points are simply lifted from the original and plopped back down here. Sure, new people are saying those lines and being influenced by those story points — but then again it’s just the actors that are new, not the characters. Those, too, are transplanted in near-entirety. One imagines an archeological expedition to the bowels of the 20th Century Fox studio costume shop under a banner that says Let’s See What We Can See emerging victorious with the costumes and props from the 1965 Flight of the Phoenix still covered in authentic desert sand. “Now all we need is new people!”

Thus are there exactly zero surprises throughout the course of the 2004 Phoenix. Dennis Quaid fills the shoes of pilot Frank Towns and does so with less gusto and more shirtlessness than Jimmy Stewart mustered four decades earlier. In fact, I take it all back: the Phoenix remake indeed is a unique film because, hey, these characters take their shirts off more often. Simply rehashing personalities, you say? Just wait until the shirts come off.

The Flight of the Phoenix (2004) - 20th Century Fox
The Flight of the Phoenix (2004) – 20th Century Fox

Wait, where’s Robert Carlyle? So Quaid saunters around like Desert Hero but looks his age (just past 50) and besides, was there sunblock in the wreckage of the Phoenix? Jimmy Stewart, who also looks his age in the 1965 version (well past 60) but also has the distinct advantage of not trying to be a young hunk, heeded well the warnings of extended UV exposure. What if Randy Quaid played Towns instead of his brother? Now that would be a surprise!

Back in 2004 no one seemed able to offer anything resembling a strong opinion on Flight of the Phoenix Redux. Roger Ebert, who could be quite the critical wordsmith when the right film arose (or the wrong one), basically just notes that the 1965 version had “less sand”. This is one of the most prolific and levelheaded film critics in history, and that’s all he can muster. New movie has same stuff, more sand. It’s the shortest Ebert review I’ve ever read, probably. See for yourself.

But, okay, this all begs the question: what if the 1965 version isn’t a part of this equation? If I haven’t seen the original, will I actually enjoy the thing being lambasted in this article? Frankly, probably yes. The caliber of actor descends more rapidly in the remake — the original had Borgnine as a tertiary player, the new one has Sticky Fingaz — but I wasn’t kidding when I said the films are nearly note-for-note. They’re not so explicit as, say, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake, which you can match up frame-for-frame; Phoenix is mirrored in the story, if not in the literal filming of that story, and so it’s understandable that the more recent iteration might just seem like a shadow to those who know the “real thing”. But if you haven’t seen the 1965 Phoenix, if the 2004 one is your “real thing”, then you can probably enjoy it just as much as if the original film never even existed.

Sadly, one gets the sense that that’s the general misconception (“wait, there’s an original version?”), at least here in 2015. The Google search of simply “Flight of the Phoenix” brings up both results, but the Quaid version is listed first and dominates that nifty right-hand column. Of course if you search simply “Quaid” you get hits on Dennis before anything on Randy, so maybe Google’s just broken.

If there is a single noteworthy difference between the two films, it’s that the characters of the original are all memorable. Even the two guys that die in the initial crash have personalities that become apparent to us in creative ways, like their lifeless hands reaching toward the items they loved in life. Maybe this unmatchable strength was in fact noted by the people who remade Flight of the Phoenix, so instead of emphasizing the cast they emphasized action and special effects.

Neither of those trailers is exactly compelling, but they each emphasize those aforementioned strengths. By now we know that no amount of gunfire and awesomely-sized sandstorms and fight scenes can ever measure up to a handful of well-written, well-realized characters. The closest thing we have to a perfect movie about desert survivors with both great characters and great action isn’t the 2004 Flight of the Phoenix. It’s Mad Max: Fury Road. But if you haven’t seen either Flight then you should definitely opt for the version that can keep its shirt on.

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