In a gripping tale of courage, resourcefulness and determination, the consequences of a plane crash strip bare the morals of the survivors. The pilot of the doomed aircraft, Frank Towns (James Stewart), is an aviator of the old school, distrustful of new technology and used to seat-of-the-pants flying. With his navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) he is piloting a cargo-cum-passenger plane high above the Arabian desert when a powerful sandstorm rises from below. Trusting his instincts Frank decides to fly through and above the storm; a risky move which leads to the starboard engine overheating and catching fire, shortly followed by the demise of the port engine. Without power the plane begins a long dive towards the ground, a sequence memorably intercut with the opening credits, before impacting messily.
Staggering from the wreckage the living find themselves deep within the Arabian desert, far off their original flight plan and with little hope of rescue. Two of their number were killed instantly while a third (a young oil-worker) has been gravely wounded - right from this beginning the crosses of the dead loom over those left alive. Frank blames himself bitterly for this tragedy (correctly so, from an objective perspective) but still tries to exert some authority over the rabble and provide reassurance. Since they have enough water for about ten days, according to Dr.Renaud (Christian Marquand), and plenty of dates as food, Frank and Lew spin the yarn that they will surely be found by search aircraft. Meanwhile a pecking order emerges among the men (a mix of oil-workers, soldiers, technical personnel and the aircrew) with the more learned/respected exerting control over the manual workers. As time passes the situation becomes increasingly bleak and Captain Harris (Peter Finch) decides to march to the nearest oasis with Sgt.Watson (Ronald Fraser), who is less than keen on the idea.
In fact Sgt.Watson manages to fake a sprained ankle just to get out of the desert trip (a move symptomatic of his hatred of the military) and his superior leaves with another passenger. Unfortunately another survivor, Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine), is so deranged that he staggers after the departed pair. Frank is still so wracked with guilt that he goes after Cobb, risking his own life in the brutal midday heat, and fails once again in his task. Just when the situation looks irretrievably lost Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger) comes up with an audacious idea - why not build a smaller plane from the debris of the first? Initially he is ridiculed, both for being German and for having such a crackpot scheme, but attitudes change slightly when he reveals that he is actually an aircraft designer. Once again there is hope, no matter how slim, that they won't become vulture food - just as long as the struggle for control between Frank and Heinrich doesn't destroy the entire enterprise.