Typically, having a plate of buffalo chicken wings at 2am is viewed as a badge of honor. An appropriate finish to any bar crawl, late night bender, or epic party that you can look back on fondly and remember those fantastic drunken escapades filled with revelry and merriment with your closest mates.
However, when you have a terrible bout of insomnia caused by work related stress, that plate of chicken wings is merely a lifeline to sanity. Some small sliver of a silver lining on a night racked by anxiety and sleepless hours. What I’ve also found can be somewhat of a tonic is watching old movies, a past time many of you that have read these entries of my blog will attest has been one of my few saving graces among many of these long nights.
But, often times I find myself watching movies I hand picked months or years in an advance, crossing off science fiction or horror pictures that I’ve wanted to watch for a long time but never got around to. This is not the case with today’s movie, as I didn’t even now it existed until I happened to turn it on accidentally one night on one of those classic movie stations that are streaming everywhere now. Given that I caught it right before it began and I was intrigued by the synopsis in my dazed half asleep stupor, I left it on.
And since I need content for this website, now you get to hear the results of that viewing. Strap into your airplane seats and watch out for savage natives, here comes a review of “Five Came Back”, the granddaddy of all disaster movies!
Five Came Back
Not to be confused with the more recent Netflix series of the same name, the original “Five Came Back” was released in 1939 by RKO Pictures. Originally it was supposed to be a prime 1938 Cary Grant vehicle but after languishing in development hell for a year, it’s budget was severely cut and it was released by the studio as a B movie. That didn’t mean though that it didn’t have some pretty “A” list talent attached to it.
First off, it was directed by John Farrow, father of actress Mia Farrow, who was nominated for best director in 1942 for his movie “Wake Island” as well as winning the Oscar for Best Writing/Best Screenplay for Around the World in Eighty Days in 1957. (Fans of the Cult Theater entries would also be interested to know that his wife was also the lovely actress Maureen O’Sullivan whom I talked about at length in my Tarzan and his Mate entry)
Second, the screenplay was written in part by Dalton Trumbo, who penned some pretty remarkable films during his time including Roman Holiday, Exodus, The Brave One, Spartacus, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
Some may more infamously remember Trumbo as being a member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were blacklisted after they refused to testify before the House’s Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 when they were investigating the influence of Communism on the film industry during the Red Scare. Still though, he was an incredible talent and his street smart no nonsense dialogue really elevated this picture from the traditional fare.
In terms of acting, there are appearances by Chester Morris who would later to go on to some modest fame in his portrayal of Boston Blackie, crook turned private investigator in a series of 14 films he made for Columbia, and John Carradine who starred in many well known pictures including Stagecoach, the Ten Commandments, The Grapes of Wrath and nearly 100 other pictures.
But the most interesting tidbit about this movie from a casting perspective was the fact that this was Lucille Ball’s first movie appearance. Yep, the classic red headed funny lady first made her bones as an actress in this film and it was actually her performance in it that first caught the eye of Hollywood executives and eventually made her a A-list talent.
So without “Five Came Back” we might never have gotten those hilarious scenes in the candy factory or squashing grapes with her feet…or Star Trek for that matter…as it was her production company Desilu that produced the series that launched a million Trekkies.
Overall the plot of the movie is that during a routine flight from Los Angeles to Panama City, 9 passengers from a wide variety of backgrounds including an elderly professor and his wife, a woman of shady disreputable past, a bodyguard transporting a notorious gangsters young son, a wealthy spoiled heir who is trying to elope with his secretary, a convicted anarchist/murderer, and the bounty hunter transporting him, all crash land in the middle of the Amazon rain forest after their plane goes wildly off course.
After receiving radio broadcasts that confirm that they will never be found due to searchers looking in the wrong area, the group bands around the pilot and co pilot in the formation of a community in hopes of surviving long enough for them to fix the plane and fly to safety. The only problem is that a hostile tribe of natives eventually discovers their existence and it becomes a race against time to escape. Only not everyone will make it out of the jungle alive.
Credited as the first movie in the survival/disaster movie genre that we now know all so well, this movie was a big hit with audiences back when it was released, spreading by word of mouth and nearly doubling in profits what it was originally made for. It was remade twice as well: first as a Mexican film named Los Que Volvieron in 1948, and then more famously as the movie Back from Eternity in 1956.
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
At first glance, it would be somewhat easy to dismiss this film as just another standard black & white “B” movie. I mean there’s a lot in it that makes it looks like it was done on the cheap as it were. The jungle is clearly a single sound stage, as is the airport, airplane, and pretty much everything else. The plane crash is the same stock footage effects shot that I’ve seen in a dozen “B” movies of that period including the first time I saw it in the MST3k episode “Jungle Goddess”. The natives that attack the survivors at the end are never seen saving on the hiring of extras. All told there wasn’t a lot of money, and it sometimes shows.
But that doesn’t mean that unlike some other “B” movies of this era, that the production staff didn’t try to make a decent picture despite limitations, and for that I really do applaud them. I mean, the script itself is pretty great with decent believable dialogue, the acting is smart and genuinely suspenseful especially during the scene in which the former murderer Vasquez grabs the pilot’s gun and makes the decision as to who lives and who dies. And despite it being one sound stage, the directors choice of shots manage to make it seem larger, to the point that it doesn’t end up getting in the way of the narrative.
It is really as if John Farrow decided that he was hell bent on making lemonade out of the production limitations lemons, and succeeded the best he could. It doesn’t hurt that he had Nicholas Musuraca to help him as cinematographer, a relatively unknown genius of the film noir style that helped perfect a visual murkiness that helped ratchet up the tension of every scene. Nicholas would later go on to work with Val Lewton on such well known horror movies from that era as “Cat People” which I plan on reviewing in a segment during my Halloween Horror series next month.
All things considered, again, as someone that has attempted to make movies in his life, I respect those that don’t let budgets get in the way of telling decent stories. And sure, to modern audiences of the motifs in this film such as the elderly couple reconnecting in the face of tragedy, the redemption of the outcasts, the spoiled and rich getting what’s coming to them, and most of the hopeful optimism that humans will band together and develop strong societies even in the face of terrific odds may seem hackneyed and cliche, but you have to remember it’s only like that because we have seen it so many times before.
However, with this movie, these ideas were still in their cinematic infancy, and like with the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Lifeboat, several years later, these films help to write the book on how you tell disaster survival stories on screen.
Final Grade: B-
Does everyone remember the show “Lost”?
I mean of course you do. Whether you watched it or not, the gripping weekly drama about mismatched castaways trying to survive on a hostile island kept audiences tuning in for 6 seasons and 121 episodes. I was a pretty big fan of that show while it was on TV even down to owning a Dharma Initiative t shirt.
And honestly, that’s what “Five Came Back” reminded me of while I was watching it. It was an super condensed version of the Lost story, minus the giant smoke monsters and time travel.
It was the same premise: a bunch of strangers from all ages, walks of life, backgrounds, professions, hurled together by dire circumstances into a desperate quest to survive, with no chance of outside help. Some form a community and share that burden together, others crack under the pressure and show the dark side of what humanity is capable of.
And like Lost, this movie was filled with compelling, rich melodrama and genuine emotional gut punches. Plus given that you know by the title of the movie that not all of the characters are going to come out of this thing alive, it makes every death so much more magnified as if there’s some sort of morbid countdown happening throughout the film.
**I’m going to spoil the plot a bit here with these next bits, so if you want to watch it for yourself stop reading now. **
From the scenes in which Pete the gangster lays down his life to save the young boy, Tommy, who has become almost a surrogate son to him, to the heart to heart talks between the steadfastly stoic plane’s pilot Bill and the broken Peggy who is looking to put her terrible past behind her, it’s all wonderful stuff.
And wow the ending with Vasquez not only having to perform mercy killings of the elderly Spangler couple so that they aren’t tortured by the natives once they are captured, but the fact that he lies to them about there being enough bullets to finish himself off to, leaving the “villain” of the piece who had lost his faith in both man, society, and God prior to the events of the crash, being the final moral arbiter as he awaits a fate worse than death…I won’t lie that I really did get the feels at that moment.
Now, I’m not going to say that this is one of the best movies ever. It’s not even in the ballpark from that perspective. However, this movie does do a lot with what it’s got, which I can’t say the same for other films which had 10 times the budget. It’s a gripping, highly entertaining character piece which doesn’t sugar coat the inherent tragedy of its premise or belittle it’s audience with false sentimentally. It’s more like an extremely good stage play or a drama from the early days of TV, when they had to work with limited sets and resources but still tell excellent stories.
I’m really glad in the end I found this little treasure of a movie, and it’s a shame more film buffs don’t know about these lost survivors of an Amazonian plane crash. I mean without this movie, we might never have had other survival/diaster pics like Airport, Towering Inferno, Apollo 13, The Poseidon Adventure, Castaway, Gravity and a slew of others.
Perhaps this blog will encourage others to form a search party and go hunting for this film for themselves. I definitely think it’s worth the effort.