Jimmy Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix
James Stewart as Frank Towns, experienced cargo pilot and war veteran
Libyan desert, Spring 1965
Film: The Flight of the Phoenix
Release Date: December 15, 1965
Director: Robert Aldrich
Costume Designer: Norma Koch
James Maitland Stewart had to fly. His earliest memories of flight involved colorful covers of Literary Digest depicting the Great War, then in progress, and the incredible use of air power by both sides. Jim tacked up each magazine cover on the wall in his bedroom. “Airplanes were the last thing I thought of every night and the first thing I thought of every morning,” he would say as an adult.
— Robert Matzen, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Chapter 1
Born 115 years ago today on May 20, 1908, Jimmy Stewart had a lifelong passion for flight that followed him through his career, from the model airplane he lovingly constructed with Henry Fonda during their salad days on Broadway through his celebrated service flying dangerous combat missions as a U.S. Army Air Forces officer during World War II. Reticent to discuss his service after the war, Stewart flew B-24 Liberators on 20 combat missions over Europe and, by war’s end, was one of only a handful of Americans to rise from the rank of private to colonel in only four years.
Aviation continued to be a theme of Stewart’s life during his postwar film career, often starring in flight-themed dramas like No Highway in the Sky (1951), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), Strategic Air Command (1955), and The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), playing famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.
One of the last—and perhaps best—of Stewart’s aviation-centered films is The Flight of the Phoenix, Robert Aldrich’s 1965 survival drama based on Elleston Trevor’s novel of the same name. Stewart plays civilian cargo pilot Frank Towns, described by his navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) as “one of the few really great pilots left in this push-button world of yours.”
While flying his Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo plane across Libya from Jaghbub to Benghazi, mechanical errors force Captain Towns to crash-land in the desert, grounding the oil workers, French doctor, and British Army personnel aboard. As the hours stretch into days, it becomes increasingly obvious to the handful of survivors that no immediate assistance is coming and they will need to depend on their resourcefulness to rescue themselves. The studious [model] aircraft designer Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Krüger) constructs a plan for the group to rebuild their plane and fly out themselves… a veritable Phoenix.
What’d He Wear?
We never see Frank Towns without his peaked cap, which appears to be a World War II-era U.S. Army officer’s summer service cap. According to USWW2Uniforms.com, these caps were authorized from 1943 through the end of the year as a warm-weather option for officers to purchase, characterized by a khaki cover and spring riser, brown leather visor, and a brown leather chinstrap across the front that connects to a crested gilt button on each side. (Instead of this more elaborate configuration, Towns’ cap has an olive braided cord connected to plain brass-toned buttons.)
Always made from the same shade of khaki, cap covers were made in both a 10.5-oz. plain-weave tropical worsted wool or a 8.2-oz. tightly woven cotton twill, each matching the respective Army summer service uniform cloth. The cotton covers were designed with two holes on each side to air the wearer’s head when wearing the tightly woven twill cloth, but the wool caps required no such ventilation; based on the appearance of the cloth and the lack of these holes, Towns’ cap appears to be the wool version.
Towns wears either a non-military cap or an Army-issued one that he has de-commissioned for civilian use by removing the gilt U.S. coat of arms from the front of the crown, leaving only a small grommet in the center. The rest of the crown falls softly, recalling the “crushed” appearance of USAAF pilots’ caps after removing the wire stiffeners to more easily accommodate headphones.
Towns wears a classic light-blue chambray work shirt, a style that had been authorized as U.S. Navy workwear since the start of the 20th century, though Towns wears a commercially produced variation. His shirt has a front placket, button cuffs, and large patch-style hip pockets with mitred corners on the button-down flaps and the pockets themselves. All of the buttons are a mixed blue plastic. The left pocket flap has an additional white-stitched hole, presumably a pen slot.
The most distinctive characteristic of Towns’ chambray shirt are the reinforced shoulder yokes, defined by a triple-stitched seam that begins at the center of the shoulder seam and curves back toward the armpit, running behind the outer top corner of each pocket. All of the stitching on the shirt is done with a lightly contrasting white thread.
Towns’ belt and trousers may be the only pieces of his kit without a prominent military provenance. His light khaki cotton pants have the typical five-pocket layout and riveted corners of jeans, and the dramatic curve of the front pockets as well as the color of the cotton suggests the contemporary Lee “Westerner” model that had a matching trucker jacket as worn around the same time by Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. However, Towns’ jeans lack Lee’s characteristic black branded patch along the top seam of the back-right pocket, suggesting that it was either removed or made by someone else. (As I believe I can discern Lee’s signature “lazy S” stitch across the back pockets, I’m inclined to believe they’re de-badged Lees.)
The jeans are cut straight through the leg with a long rise to Jimmy Stewart’s natural waist-line. He holds them up with a narrow Western-styled belt of plain brown leather with a large silver-toned curved ranger-style single-prong buckle with a matching keeper and tip.
Appropriate for their desert surroundings, Towns wears desert boots, the unique ankle-high footwear launched in 1950 by English shoemaker Clarks following Nathan Clark’s Asian service with the British Army during World War II. Sharing their ankle-high, derby-laced profile with chukka boots, desert boots are characterized by unlined rough suede uppers and crepe soles, resulting in lightweight, durable boots offering effective traction.
Towns wears brown suede desert boots with matching brown laces pulled through a two-eyelet system, worn with thin black cotton lisle socks.
Towns occasionally pulls on the extra layer of a well-worn field jacket, specifically the thigh-length M-1951 jacket that had been introduced for U.S. Army personnel during the Korean War to replace the older M-1943 and would last through the beginning of the Vietnam War.
The M-1951 is made of a 9-oz. weather-resistant cotton sateen cloth in the same olive-green shade as the contemporary OG-107 utility fatigues. The jacket’s profile continued the four-pocket design of the M-1943 and M-1950, with two large bellows pockets over the chest and two large set-in pockets over the hips, each closing with a hidden snap on a pointed flap. The M-1951 jacket has a khaki-taped zipper that extends up from the waist to the neck, covered by a fly with eight snaps to close. (This fastening system most immediately differentiates the M-1951 from the older M-1943 and M-1950, which had buttons instead of snaps and closed as high as mid-chest, though the ulster collar could be closed over the chest as well.)
The M-1951 boasted two separate drawstrings to close the cinched waist and around the bottom hem, though Towns has configured his jacket so that he could tie the waist drawstring without closing the rest of the jacket, likely wearing cooler in the desert heat.
The jacket also has shoulder straps (epaulets) sewn to the set-in sleeve-heads and buttoned to the shoulders closer to the neck, and the cuffs close through one of two buttons for an adjustable fit over the wrist; the green buttons on Towns’ jacket suggest a later issue than older jackets, which would have brown buttons.
Towns wears brown pebbled leather three-point gloves that serve him for maintaining his grip while flying and conducting maintenance on his plane. The gloves have matching leather pull-cord straps over the back of each wrist, snapped down on one end with a beaded end.
Rather than the more sophisticated aviation-minded watches that had been produced the previous decade, like the Breitling Navitimer, Rolex GMT Master, or military-issued A-17 pilot watches, Towns wears a tastefully simple steel-cased wristwatch with a round white dial detailed by silver-toned non-numeric hour indices and worn on a plain black leather strap.
After a group of mysterious horsemen make the group feel threatened and Captain Harris (Peter Finch) and Dr. Renaud (Christian Marquand) haven’t returned from the trip to meet them, Towns takes an Enfield No. 2 Mk I* revolver from the cowardly Sergeant Watson (Ronald Fraser), who had refused to accompany his superior officer.
The Enfield No. 2 Mk I was first produced in the early 1930s when it entered British service alongside the Webley revolver, both chambered for the .38/200 cartridge (also known as .38 S&W Short). This cartridge had been adopted as the military’s preferred alternative to the heavy recoil of the powerful .455 round.
Developed at the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) Enfield, “the design of the Enfield No. 2 Mk I was a scaled-down version of the Webley Mark VI, featuring a “break-top” frame and cylinder chambered for six rounds, firing a heavy-grain bullet,” according to The Complete World Encyclopedia of Guns. In 1938, the revolver was retooled with a spurless hammer, rendering it double-action only. However, it compensated for this with a lighter mainspring that eased the shot. This updated model was named the No. 2 Mk I*, differentiated by an asterisk instead of the perhaps more practical solutions of “Mk II” or even “No. 3”.
The Enfield No. 2 Mk I* was relatively accurate, as it lacked the typically heavy trigger pull encountered with double-action only handguns. The spurless hammer added the benefit of preventing it from snagging on clothing or tank cabling and controls. After the war, almost all existing stocks of Enfield revolvers were converted to resemble the No. 2 Mk I*. Like its Webley cousins, the Enfield No. 2 Mk I* remained in British service long after most other nations had updated their service pistols to semi-automatics. It was eventually replaced by the semi-automatic Browning Hi-Power (L9/L9A1) in the 1960s.
How to Get the Look
From his khaki peaked cap to his desert boots, Frank Towns dresses in rugged and simple high-flying workwear informed by his previous military service, with an emphasis on strong yet light-wearing fabrics that could be comfortably worn through an extended period in the desert.
- Light-blue chambray cotton work shirt with curved shoulder yokes, front placket, two chest pockets (with button-down flaps), and button cuffs
- Light-khaki cotton straight-leg jeans with long rise, belt loops, and five-pocket layout
- Brown leather belt with silver-toned curved Western-style single-prong buckle with matching keeper and tip
- Brown suede 2-eyelet crepe-soled desert boots
- Black cotton lisle socks
- Khaki tropical worsted wool officer’s summer service peaked cap with olive braided cord-strap and brown leather visor
- Olive-green cotton sateen M-1951 U.S. Army field jacket with snap/zip front closure, drawstrings at waist and hem, two bellows chest pockets and two set-in hip pockets (all with snap-closed pointed flaps), shoulder straps/epaulets, and button cuffs
- Brown leather three-point gloves with toggled wrist strap
- Steel dress watch with round white dial on black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, which was later remade in 2004 with Dennis Quaid in Stewart’s role.
I also recommend Robert Matzen’s book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe that chronicles Stewart’s wartime service with the USAAF.
I suppose pilots are just as good now as they ever were, but they sure don’t live the way we did. I could tell you that there were times when you took real pride in just… getting there. Flying used to be fun!