What happens when the right stuff goes wrong? Such is "The Flight of the Eagle," a lavishly produced story of doom that begins in the most whimsical of vehicles, a hot-air ballon.

Swedish director Jan Troell, unrelentingly dogmatic, examines the relationships among three explorers who flew off in the hydrogen balloon Ornen, only to run out of gas 496 miles from their goal, the North Pole, and 186 miles from the nearest land.

Max Von Sydow stars as the quixotic leader S. A. Andree, who was found frozen in ice and partially eaten by polar bears 33 years after the Ornen rose on July 11, 1879. Andree's diaries along with 34 photographs of the men, their letters and testimonies from the women they left behind provide the documentation for this depressing, draggy drama. Per Olaf Sundman's novel was another influence.

Andree, as Sydow depicts him, is not at all the American prototype of an aeronaut. He's a stodgy, stubborn visionary who "always feels safe when he's on his way somewhere." By then, he and companions Knut Fraenkel (Sverre Anker Ousdal) and Nils Strindberg (Goran Stangertz) are dragging 200-kilo sleds across the Arctic wastes. They follow Andree without question, although his decisions have all been wrong.

The actors are convincingly debilitated by trichinosis from eating raw walrus, bouts of diarrhea, frostbite and all the sort of things we've come to expect from explorer movies. But as far as real gutsy emoting -- man to man -- it never comes across. Perhaps reading subtitles corrodes the experience.

"The Flight of the Eagle," an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film this year, does offer some inspired visuals -- an explorer playing his violin above a misty glacier field; the swollen bladder skimming gray water with a basket of brave fools. Unfortunately, there's too much build-up before the takeoff. And the flight itself is a clumsily staged letdown.