Story Pile: Flight of the Phoenix

What’s your favourite movie?

That’s one of those questions that we ask from time to time, a conversation starter. For me, I don’t have a good answer – like, I struggle to give a meaningful response that doesn’t involve explaining ‘I’m bad at favourites,’ which means that the conversation stops being about an interesting common shared media thing and starts, instead, being about my personal anxieties. They’re not fun to talk about. I mean I assume they’re not, I haven’t found anyone interested yet.

I do like asking the question, though, even if I can’t answer it for squat.

One time I asked it, and I got told amongst others, that my friend’s favourite movie was Flight of the Phoenix.

The Flight Of the Phoenix is a disaster movie with an amazing hook: Our group of extremely white extremely men crash land a large plane in the Sahara desert, and after all alternate attempts at escape or rescue fail, they instead resolve to turn their crashed big plane into a smaller plane to fly to safety. This absolutely ridiculous sounding premise is handled with absolute sincerity and is used as the desperate finale of a survival movie that shows all the different ways you can try and survive and ‘escape’ a desert, and then underscoring just how easily those solutions fail.

A desert isn’t a fun kind of thing to be trapped in. It’s not something with an obvious out, or with a heavily varied set of threats that may come for you. It isn’t a place where you can do stuff to extend your time, where lots of different threats are coming at you. It’s not like being stranded in the Amazon rainforest, where you’ll have a huge variety of problems and your need to escape is about how many of those things you can dodge.

No, surviving in a desert is about the single big problem and it’s not varied.

A jungle survival, or a mountaintop survival, those are problems with varied, extremely dramatic problems. In a desert, there’s one problem and it stays the one problem until you have no problems at all, any more; You’re in a desert.

It means that the tone of the movie is largely one of oppressive hopelessness. The smart thing to do when trapped in a desert at a crash site is to stay with the plane, which can provide shelter and cover, is more easily found than your body, and is something that usually, people will look for. The movie is, after that premise is established, about showing every single possible thing that can make an alternative survival option not work. It’s not just ‘stuck’ in a desert, it’s lost in a desert. It’s not just lost in a desert, it’s lost in a hostile desert.

Rebuilding a plane out of scraps is a ridiculous idea that has a very low chance of working, but the movie makes a clear and deliberate case that this ridiculous idea is the best option these people have.

It’s an extraordinarily novel premise. It feels like it only really works in its specific window of time: Planes right now aren’t made the same way, the parts are integrated in a different way and the internal components need specialised tools to dismantle, you might not be able to do something like this in, say, 2004, with a more modern plane fifty years on, and the way a plane can get lost in a desert like this is very much a product of this specific window of time.

Also, there’s the distrust you get when you find out one of your compatriots on a plane worked on planes in Germany, it’s very different fifteen years out from World War 2 than, like, now. Mental health problems and clashing wills and bad communication in the time was all seen just part of how men were at the time, and those things all exacerbate the tragedy and the stress of the situation.

The plane, as Lawrence Hargraves envisioned it, was a sort of scientific union project. It would be made not by the works of a silo’d corporation isolated from one another, but rather by the work of individual tinkerers working at solving every individual stage of the problem, of making a thing that could fly at all. He didn’t imagine the plane as an immense industrial project that reshaped the world, because he was focused on just designing wings and lift surfaces. What has come since then is a plane becoming an entity of empire; certainly the plane as tool of war, like this plane was. It wasn’t a fighter plane – but it was a plane made, originally, for the purposes of moving goods for wars, part of that infrastructure.

There’s a charm to this movie – not intentional, purely found accidentally in the moments of it – where what saves these people is understanding the system they worked with, even if they only started to learn about it because of how important it was to play. The crew made something, out of parts they understood, because even if they were subject to empire, empire is just a system. Empire is not why the plane flies, empire is why the plane was built.

What was built around us can be unbuilt and put to better use.

Thanks for the movie recommendation, Nixie, it was interesting.

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