Five Came Back (1939)

“Chance is too tricky — the wrong people might win; we’ve got to be logical.”

Five Came Back Poster

Synopsis:
When a motley group of airplane passengers — including an elderly botanist (C. Aubrey Smith) and his wife (Elisabeth Risdon); a millionaire (Patric Knowles) eloping with his fiancee (Wendy Barrie); a condemned anarchist (Joseph Calleia) and his keeper (John Carradine); a gangster (Allen Jenkins) caring for his boss’s son (Casey Johnson); and a woman (Lucille Ball) with a questionable past — crash into the Amazonian jungle, they learn valuable lessons about themselves and each other as they struggle to survive. Meanwhile, the co-pilots (Chester Morris and Kent Taylor) work diligently to fix the broken plane — but will they succeed in helping all their passengers escape in time to avoid a tribe of headhunters looming close to their encampment?

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Review:
This early “airplane disaster flick” (helmed by John Farrow, who also directed its 1956 remake, Back From Eternity) remains an iconic forerunner of just about every other ensemble-cast survival tale released since. The diverse characters, naturally, represent a true gamut of personality types, with plenty of opportunities for character arcs to reveal individuals’ better (or worse) natures once they’re stranded together miles away from modern civilization. Much like in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent flick Male and Female (1919), class barriers melt away in the face of the need to survive, with those best suited to lead (in this case, Morris) tasked with taking charge — though naturally, not without contention. At just 75 minutes long, the pithy script (co-written in part by none other than Nathaniel West and Dalton Trumbo) wastes no time at all in presenting each of the characters and allowing them to interact with one another in strategic ways, so that we’re easily able to see the shifts that take place once they’re plunged into survival mode — i.e., while Ball was once judged too “loose” to help care for the gangster’s son (Johnson), she’s soon entrusted with this role; Smith’s browbeating wife (Risdon) is “domesticated” in the jungle; etc. Watch for the nicely handled final scene, which packs a true emotional punch, and is seamlessly directed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine ensemble performances (particularly by Calleia)
    Five Came Back Ensemble
  • Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography
    Five Came Back Cinematography
  • A pithy B-level script

Must See?
Yes, as an all-around “good show”. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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