I was watching the film The Flight of the Phoenix earlier today, and this ‘arc’ kept occuring to me, so for the sake of curiosity I decided to have a look to see if it fit this structure, and if so, how. It’s a bit of an interesting case as it’s an ensemble piece with multiple ‘main’ characters, each with their own arc. I’ll consider it for the James Stewart character, Frank Towns – an old-fashioned ‘seat of the pants’ pilot who laments the onset of a new age of computers and scientific management of flying and indeed, the world – but throw in others from time to time.
Act I – resistance
An Arabco ‘Skytruck’ freighter, carrying a load of oil drilling equipment and tools, oil workers and other passengers to Benghazi, gets caught in a sandstorm and crash-lands in the desert.
Inciting incident – the sandstorm encircles the aircraft giving it no way through (it’s unclear at this point as to whether any of the characters are at fault or whether it could have been avoided. The weather report is indicated to have been inaccurate, so despite issues brought up later, we’ll consider it an ‘act of god’ that gives Towns no choice but to attempt a forced landing when sand chokes the engines.
Act IIa – exhaustion
The survivors – two died in the crash, and another man Gabriele (Gabriele Tinti) is mortally injured – realise the extent of the problems they face – the aircraft is irreparably damaged, they have water for less than three weeks, they were blown off course by the sandstorm so are unlikely to be located in time by any search. Relationships become strained, with the sarcastic and antagonistic Ratbags Crow (Ian Bannen) winding up many of the survivors. Captain Harris (Peter Finch), an army officer hitching a ride with Arabco, reacting to the basic inability to do anything but wait for rescue, decides to march to the nearest settlement, 100 miles away, to fetch help. Towns, assisted by his navigator Moran (Richard Attenborough) attempts to dissuade him, citing the lack of water and vast problems of navigation in the desert meaning that even if he managed to walk 100 miles, he would be almost certain to miss the tiny mining outpost he is aiming for. Harris is unmoved, and when his sergeant, Watson, fakes an injury to prevent him going, asks for volunteers from the civilians, but vetoes an offer from Cobb (Ernest Bognine) on the strength of his physical condition. Instead, Harris takes Carlos (Alex Montoya). They leave, the others certain they will never be heard from again.
Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger), a previously withdrawn and aloof character, reveals a proposal to build a new aeroplane out of the wreckage of the old. He is given short shrift, most of the survivors considering his plan as symptomatic of the insanity increasingly taking over. It is revealed that Cobb was being sent home from his post as foreman with the oil company due to mental exhaustion, a move he resents and is ashamed of, considering that others think of him as a ‘headcase’ despite the assurances of the doctor, Renaud (Christian Marquand) that his condition will pass and does not reflect on him. Cobb believes this is why he was rejected to assist Harris.
The survivors discover Cobb has slipped off to follow Harris and Carlos. Towns, already guilt-stricken over the previous deaths, follows him, but finds him dead.
Meanwhile, Dorfmann has been working on Moran to attempt his plan. He indicates that he is an aeronautical engineer and has already completed most of the calculations and design work, together with a work schedule, to accomplish it. When Towns returns, they attempt to persuade him, but he angrily rejects the idea as suicidal and doomed to fail.
Act II midpoint – Moran and Renaud impress upon Towns that hope has decreased to such a degree that they face a choice of waiting to die or taking some action that will at least keep the men occupied. Towns, seeing in Dorfmann everything he detests about the modern world, reluctantly agrees to at least start work.
Act IIb – period of grace
The work initially progresses well. Dorfmann’s ideas appear to be borne out, and morale improves. Harris is discovered having returned to the crash site but collapsed just outside – Watson spotted him, but left him there and did not tell the others. No mention is made of Carlos, who it is assumed died as Cobb did.
Act II fall – As work nears its end, the men’s energy levels drop and they cannot maintain Dorfmann’s punishing schedule. Gabriele commits suicide, having lost all hope (and grief stricken in the belief that his wife, who he had been returning to because of an illness, had died). Towns reveals that someone has been taking more than their fair share of water, and Dorfmann admits to it on the basis that he has been doing more work than anyone else, enraging and further alienating the rest of the party. Finally, a small bedouin caravan arrives and camps beyond the next dune, offering the hope that they may not have to fly the aircraft after all. Despite warnings that they are probably a criminal raiding party who may be dangerous, Harris and Renaud go to talk to them – Watson rejects a direct order from Harris to accompany him. The two men are murdered, but did not give away the presence of the crash party. These events lead to things almost falling apart. Moran accuses of Towns of being more concerned to prove Dorfmann wrong than save the survivors, and suggests that his guilt over the men who have died is superficial. Towns retorts by accusing Moran of poor planning that led to them being caught in the sandstorm in the first place. Dorfmann refuses to manage the final completion of the aircraft – which one of the survivors, Standish (Dan Dureya) has now named ‘The Phoenix’ for obvious reasons – believing that Towns lacks the will to do his part of the job when the time comes. The pair clash when Towns insists on testing the engine, while Dorfmann refuses to countenance running the engine until they absolutely need to – the moment of the flight to freedom.
Death moment – Dorfmann demands that Towns submit to his authority over the project or he will not supervise the final work, crucially the Phoenix’s controls, which Dorfmann has set out no plans for. Towns does so, and the last details are completed.
Transformational Moment – In conversation with Dorfmann, Towns and Moran discover that the former is in fact a designer of flying model aeroplanes and has never worked on a full-sized one. Despite his assurances that the theoretical knowledge knowledge required is identical, Towns and Moran are horrified and their faith is tested to the limit.
The time comes to start the engine, which proves more difficult than expected, and requires Towns’ skills (and more importantly, requires him not to deliberately fail, which some of the party believe he will do). Starting the engine takes six of the seven starter cartridges that remain, and Towns overrules Dorfmann’s instructions as to how to accomplish this, getting the engine running through his innate mechanical sympathy. He successfully takes off and flies the cobbled-together aeroplane carrying the survivors to the nearest oasis. Dorfmann and Towns acknowledge their newfound mutual respect.
I found that the structure fitted the ‘transformational arc’ pretty well – and moreover, did so for most of the characters. Harris proves to be a tragic character who cannot change his conviction that positive action at the soonest opportunity is always the right course, a conviction that takes three men to their deaths. Cobb dies in a vain attempt to prove that he still has worth on his own terms, failing to see that the members of the group must subjugate their individual desires to the collective good in order to succeed. Moran, the group’s diplomat, succeeds in encouraging the fractious elements of the group to work together, being the first to change his outlook that his longtime friend Towns might not have all the answers, and facing the biggest challenge to his new worldview when Dorfmann’s experience proves to be less valid than he had thought. Others are less clear. Ratbags Crow acts mainly as friction to the group dynamic, but his cynicism is seen quietly turning to hope and hard work to help the group succeed. Standish discovers reserves of character and practicality he did not believe himself capable of. Watson breaks free of the hated officer class, but presumably faces an uncertain future having disobeyed his superior officer in a way that will not reflect well on the British army. Towns is the most obvious ‘hero’, and his arc most closely follows the transformational one, as he realises that the passing of the old order and its replacement with the new is not all negative, and that some of the ‘new men’ can have value. Dorfmann, in turn, is far more of a traditional antagonist, but he eventually changes too – though the consequences of him not changing do not appear to be significant.
Interesting exercise. Apologies for length of post!