This unusual suspenser brought together several talents at budget-conscious RKO to become a surprise hit of 1939. It’s now available on demand from Warner Archive.
Five Came Back might be one of the original “high concept” movies, since the whole idea is spelled out in the title. Twelve diverse people, conceived as quickly sketched types, are in a small airplane that gets blown way off course and crashes in a lush jungle en route from Los Angeles to Panama City. Search planes fail to find them, and they must spend weeks repairing the plane and forming a community.
It’s a brisk 75 minutes of interplay and tense action, mostly of an obvious and simple-minded variety, with the audience always wondering which five will come back–or to put it another way, who’s doomed and why.
The script by the illustrious trio of Jerry Cady (Oscar-nominated for A Wing and a Prayer ), famous blacklistee Dalton Trumbo (Oscar winner for Roman Holiday and The Brave One ), and novelist Nathanael West throws in a few socio-political tweaks: a disrespected “loose woman” (Lucille Ball in an important performance to her career) is revealed as “all right”, a rich scion (Patric Nowles) as a selfish parasite “not worth saving”, an officer of the court (John Carradine) as a useless violent drunk, and a Latin American “anarchist” and political assassin (Joseph Calleia), bound for execution in Panama, as a noble soul who pitches in until he takes over “the law” (a gun) and appoints himself judge of everyone’s fate. Mind you, the screenplay makes it easy for him by that point.
Also in the picture are Chester Morris and Kent Taylor as the pilots, Wendy Barrie as an attractive young woman, Allen Jenkins as a gangster in charge of a little boy, and C. Aubrey Smith and Elisabeth Risdon as an older couple with stiff upper lips. They find happiness when the henpecked husband shows backbone and orders wifey to cook the meals, so presumably a corruption of civilization gets set right in the natural order of the jungle. You can see why the film comes off as simplistic, if entertaining.
Director John Farrow made several tight and suspenseful B’s, including The Big Clock and Night Has a Thousand Eyes. This early success, in which Farrow is aided by great black-and-white cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, was so important to his career that he produced and directed a remake, Back from Eternity, in 1956. This film also feels like a seminal template for subsequent multi-character airplane-disaster and crash projects, all the way down to Lost, which is why it carries a sense of déjà vu even if you’ve never seen it before. Here’s the original, and much tighter than most of its offspring.