Tag Archives: Richard Attenborough

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!”

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

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The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Continuing our mini-retrospective on actor and director Richard Attenborough, one notices that Netflix only musters seven films with his name in the credits – three of which he directed, three of which he acted in, and one of which is a documentary. Shouldn’t there be more of a selection for a guy who acted in nearly 80 different projects and directed twelve feature films, one of which won a Best Picture Oscar? Shouldn’t he have at least half of the Netflix catalogue awarded to William Shatner? Anyway.

Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles is an interesting one to be included in that hors d’oeuvre-sized offering, and it’s a film in which Attenborough shines. Steve McQueen takes the spotlight, as Steve McQueen is wont to do from time to time, but Attenborough’s character serves as a perfect compliment to the protagonist. McQueen’s Jake Holman and Attenborough’s Frenchy Burgoyne are aboard a U.S. gunboat (The San Pablo, though pronounced by some as Sand Pebbles) in the heart of China in 1926. It’s a time of revolution and both men get wrapped up in local and national affairs during their long tour.

Attenborough has said Pebbles was the longest shoot he ever worked on, including the epic Gandhi, and that the cast and crew spent 8 months in Taipei filming. Wise spent a full four years bringing the project to fruition, and the time spent and the care taken is evident in the epic sweep of the final product.

The film is sluggishly slow in most places. McQueen’s Jake cultivates a relationship with the engine of the ship (in the picture above he’s just said “Hello, Engine. I’m Jake Holman”) while Attenborough’s Frenchy cultivates a relationship with a local Chinese woman. The characters couldn’t be more unlike each other, but they build a mutual respect and even loyalty as their tour progresses. Also, Attenborough sports one hell of a handlebar mustache.

The Sand Pebbles takes its time, but is worth watching to see McQueen and Attenborough in two of their most distinctive roles.

All Night Long (1962)

Do you like jazz? Do you like Shakespeare’s Othello? Do you like to smoke marijuana? Do you want to plead the fifth on that last one in case your mom overhears? Hi Mom!

Continuing our rundown of Richard Attenborough films in the wake of his passing (which really consists of searching “Richard Attenborough” on Netflix and watching whatever comes up), the jazz-driven All Night Long ended up being a hidden gem of sorts. The Netflix synopsis describes it as a retelling of Othello, which it certainly is, but like any great remake or adaptation the majority of All Night Long is highly original.

On one level the movie is really just a vehicle for jazz greats Dave Brubeck, John Dankworth, Ray Dempsey, and Charles Mingus. Guys like Mingus don’t get nearly enough screentime, but it’s still cool to see them in this context and to have the video of them at all. Brubeck, on the other hand, gets an entire song right smack in the middle of the film, which he seems to relish. His presence and obvious passion for jazz also lend a lot to the main story.

And the main story is actually quite well executed. Attenborough is slightly tangential as the rich host of the London-set all-night session; Paul Harris is the Othello figure and bandleader Aurelius Rex; Marti Stevens, who looks like a zombie when she sings, is the Desdemona character and object of everyone’s attention; Keith Michell is great as saxophonist and wrong-guy-at-the-wrong-time Cass Michaels.

But Patrick McGoohan as Iago figure Johnny Cousin is the real treat here, and he’s what elevates the film from a mere parade of jazz cameos to an actual story. Johnny Cousin, unlike Iago, has a clear motive for destroying the relationship between Rex and Marti Stevens’s Delia, as doing so will allow Delia to join his band instead. His methods – really only seen by the audience, as they involve a deception on nearly everyone else at the session – are brutal and extremely low. Cousin is a drummer, and a drummer with a massive ego to boot – his drums say “Johnny Cousin” in flowing script on the front of them – and McGoohan plays the music scenes nearly flawlessly. He sweats and struggles over the snare and the high hat and the crash and the bass drum, but it’s clear to the audience that the objects in the room he’s really working on are the people.

And at the end of All Night Long, when it’s very obvious not only to the viewer but even to the partygoers that something fishy is afoot, Cousin has nothing to say for himself and just accepts that he has run his game into the ground. His ploy started with a clear motive, yes, but it ended with a different one – not one of gain or desire, but one of straight evil. After everyone has left him to his shame, his wife still approaches him with his coat to leave, telling him that she loves him, you see? “I don’t see,” he says. “I don’t love anyone. Not even Johnny.” This plays fantastically off of the underscores on his ego from earlier, and McGoohan knocks it out of the park.

Also, he can really play the drums:

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

The passing of cinema giant Richard Attenborough has prompted a return to some of his greatest and most overlooked films. Be on the lookout for reflections on his acting, his directing, and on the occasional documentary film if and when I confuse him with David Attenborough.

Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix remains a masterclass in ensemble filmmaking. The big names — James Stewart, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Hardy Kruger, George Kennedy, and Attenborough himself, among others — promise more than enough entertainment during the opening credits. It’s the characters, though, that impress past the set-up, and each and every man is drawn to be a unique and interesting person. Consider:

-Jimmy Stewart is Captain Towns, ostensible main character and old-timey pilot who believes his know-how to be worth more than any technical mumbo-jumbo. He’s essentially Waldo Pepper a decade before Redford was Waldo Pepper.

-Attenborough and Kruger arguably share second fiddle. The former is the lovable drunk who could have been a pilot if not for his addiction, and thus has been relegated to the duties of a navigator. Kruger’s Dorfmann is the stubborn and brilliant plane designer, holding a secret that he doesn’t even realize. Both are endlessly watchable.

-Finch, Borgnine, Ian Bannen as “Ratbags” Crow, Ronald Fraser as Sgt. Watson — usually this tier of an ensemble cast is in there just to fill out the field, to inform the “real” characters in the tiers above. But Borgnine’s oafish Cobb, for example, ends up having a deceptively complex character arc; Finch’s Captain Harris ventures out alone to find help, refusing the assistance of Cobb on the basis of his poor physical condition (and, it’s implied, his pathetic mental capacity). Cobb can’t comprehend this and defiantly charges into the desert after Harris, only to die in the heat. He scrawls one final message in the sand in his final moments: his name, “Cobb”, one of the only things he’s sure of.

-George Kennedy isn’t an Academy Award winner at this point, and he has very few lines throughout the course of Phoenix. But his downtrodden face and his futile punches at his own leg when a fellow passenger succumbs to death early in the film still provide a major insight into his character — and that pain comes full circle when the makeshift aircraft finally roars to life at the climax of the film, Kennedy roaring along with it.

-Even those who die in the initial crash — occurring less than ten minutes into the 2.5 hour film — are memorable and complete, are inhabited much more so than any supporting characters in today’s ensembles. Bill has his ouzo and Tasso has his bouzouki, both shown as men with things that they love. Both are then shown crushed in the wreckage, the dripping ouzo bottle and the demolished instrument inches from their still hands. These aren’t throwaway characters (“we loved you so, so-and-so”); their deaths have an effect on Stewart’s Captain Towns, as he feels responsible, so we feel their deaths are important as well. And in less than ten minutes!

So take Last Vegas and Expendables and other “ensembles” and forget them (oh, you already did?). Consider, too, that this isn’t the kind of ensemble connected by the whole six-degrees thing, wherein films like Crash and Babel and Love, Actually posit that the cast is intertwined by themes and experiences that are common instead of experiences that are actually the same. In the tradition carried on by the likes of Murder on the Orient Express and Traffic years later, The Flight of the Phoenix is an ensemble film in the truest sense of the phrase, and because of that is wildly entertaining.