"Night Flight" is the shortest of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's seven books, and yet even in its scant 80 pages the great French aviator and writer managed to condense the hopes and fears, discipline and recklessness of fligers in particular and human beings in general.
Some of St.-Exupery's musings shine through a half-hour film adaptation of the book that airs at 7:30 tonight on Channel 9. We get a glimpse of the pressure on mail route pilots, the treachery of the elements and a condensation of the writer's awe of flying, as in these words spoken by Trevor Howard:
"I believe that human life is precious. Yet my pilots and I believe that there is something more valuable than our lives. What that something is I don't know. The future perhaps."
Unfortunately, 30 minutes are not enough to developed the nuances of St.-Exupery's tale. Howard, as a crotchety route manager, emphasizes only the man's hard-headedness, with little of the coach's sense of pride in winning that the book so carefully portrays. Bo Svenson, as the line's best pilot, seems like a stick figure, generally peering out of his plane into clouds whose menace is neatly disguised by all the tight shots in the program.
What "Night Flight," the television version, suggests, is the tragedy of the loss of a pilot gone down, a story really confined to one man. Conversely, the book is more of an ode to the challenge presented by the constant danger inherent in early flying, a much more expansive topic for consideraton -- and one apparently too expansive to fit into one half hour on a television tube.