Monday, 10 November 2008

Flight of the Phoenix

Plate from The Flight of the Phoenix: click to enlarge.

Watching the 2004 Flight of the Phoenix (a remake of the 1965 film) night prompted me to re-read Elleston Trevor's 1964 novel The Flight of the Phoenix.

The book and two films make an interesting comparison. Robert Aldrich's classic 1965 b&w 1 film was a more or less direct adaptation of the novel, with the exception of turning the aircraft designer Stringer into a German, Heinrich Dorfmann, using the already typecast Hardy Kr├╝ger. This was a clever move, using the German stereotype of analytical thought and efficiency in contrast with the grizzled pilot Towns' aviation-by-instinct, as well as introducing still pertinent tensions about German post-war success. The remake turned the character into "Elliott" - a character one might diagnose as somewhere on the autism spectrum, which is more or less as Stringer is in the book too. Otherwise, while by no means a bad film, the 2004 remake dropped into a number of standard Hollywood formats, such as the switch to American characters (multiracial cast and token woman) and the urge to sanitize (nobody ever looks terribly dehydrated, and some of the darker personal incidents are removed, such as the injured man who commits suicide to conserve water for the other survivors, and the mutinous Sergeant Watson who laughs at his officer's death). Add to that the urge to embroider the story with exciting incidents (deadly sandstorms, lightning, explosions, marauding horsemen, a scary cliff, etc); and the general desire to tell the backstory and detail the post-rescue outcome. The book, in contrast, begins in mid-flight

The wind had flung the sand thirty thousand feet into the sky above the desert in a blinding cloud from the Niger to the Nile, and somewhere in it was the aeroplane.

and ends simply with the Phoenix landing at the El Araneb garrison

Out of the desert there came seven men, and a monkey.

Elleston Trevor (born Trevor Dudley-Smith, and working under a variety of pseudonyms) is little known now, but was astonishingly prolific. His other best-known works are the "Quiller" espionage series, but I think The Flight of the Phoenix is still the most iconic. It's a good example of a book that makes what's basically an engineering story - complete with diagram, above - gripping through powerfully emotional character interaction. The historical/political context of the story (US/British post-WWII oil exploration teams in the Sahara in the days of the Kingdom of Libya, when Britain had a 20-year concession to maintain military bases) is of course long gone, though perhaps there are equivalents elsewhere of the "Goolie Chit" mentioned in the book.

I'd often wondered, as it was before the days of CGI, whether the Phoenix in the first film was actually an aeroplane that could fly. It was (though actually two). The first, called the Tallmantz Phoenix P-1, crashed, leading to the death of the pilot Paul Mantz; flying sequences were completed using a North American O-47A painted to resemble the first. See The Final Flight of the "Phoenix" at the generally interesting aviation history site Check-Six. Talking of aviation history, the book and first film mention - when Stringer/Dorfmann argues why his design should work - the history of self-powered heavier-than-air model aircraft prior to manned flights, particularly the work of Henson and Stringfellow. More background at Flying Machines.

P.S. The Flight of the Phoenix is dedicated to "the great Wally Thomas". This was a bit of a bibliographic puzzle until I found an auction lot description

TREVOR Elleston, The Flight of the Phoenix 1964, dw., an uncorrected Proof Copy of The Flight of the Phoenix mole's Castle 1950 with presentation inscription to Marilyn Thomas (daughter of Wally Thomas), signed by author and THOMAS Wally, Life In My Hands, 1961 reprint, dw with a Thank you letter for Princess Grace o Monaco dated 1961 (Elleston Trevor, Wally Thomas and Princess Grace were acquaintances)

which identifies it as referring to Wally Thomas, author of the 1960 autobiographical Life in my hands, which tells of his rehabiliation at St Dunstan's after losing his sight and hearing during his work in bomb disposal.

1. I stand corrected (thanks, Scot). I've seen it any number of times, and can'timagine how I thought it was black and white. See the intro on YouTube.

Addendum: I've no evidence, but it seems a strong possibility that the novel was inspired by the Lady Be Good incident, when a American B-24D Liberator bomber crashed in the Libyan desert through a navigation error in 1943 - the survivors died of thirst - and the virtually intact aircraft wasn't rediscovered until 1958. The 1964 review of the novel in Air Pictorial: Journal of the Air League, Volume 26, noted the similarity of scenario. See the post Sole survivor (9th March 2011) for more on this.

- Ray


  1. Engrossing as always.

    And I never knew that the Adam Hall who wrote those Quiller novels ("The fly fell down", enigmatic one line en clair report on loss of an aircraft was a catchphrase of my fellow sixth formers in 1969...) was a Trevor pseudonym.

  2. Oops ... sorry ... yes ... The Striker Portfolio ... meant to write that, but somehow missed it out!

    Watched the film tonight (wasn't home at the time of broadcast), all the more informed for having read your post first :-)

  3. Wally Thomas was my Grandfather and I was really suprised and proud to have found this.

    'P.S. The Flight of the Phoenix is dedicated to "the great Wally Thomas".'

    Learn something new everyday.

    1. Hi K..

      I knew Wally very well, working as I did at St Dunstans from 1977-85..What a wonderful man..

      Do email me,

    2. K. Thomas, Peter or others -- We are trying to find bio information on Wally Thomas, the deaf blind WW II survivor. Please contact