Hollywood wasn’t betting on the massive success of a piddly little RKO adventure film starring the likes of Chester Morris and Lucille Ball. But when director John Farrow’s measly $225,000 film amassed $262,000 in profits, Hollywood’s ears perked up. In 1939, Five Came Back became one of the most successful films created by an independent studio. And much of that accomplishment stems from Farrow’s direction and the screenplay, which takes the basic tropes of a disaster movie (this is considered the granddaddy of 1970s disaster tales like Airport!), infusing it with suspense and a dose of political intrigue (courtesy of blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo).
Coast Airline’s flagship, the Silver Queen, crashes in a remote jungle with twelve souls on-board. As the pilots fix the plane, the disparate group bond, learning to live together. Unfortunately, the plane’s fix only accommodates five people, leaving questions of who will be forced to stay behind.
The film’s title doesn’t seek to mislead you. Of the group’s success getting home, there’s no doubt, but the question is who exactly will be making it back into the arms of their families. Taking its time introducing everyone, Farrow and crew give each character a compelling reason to stay on the island, and just enough reason to come home. So even before the fatal “the plane only holds five” plot point comes into play, the audience is lulled into believing that some might be staying of their own choosing. All the requisite disaster film characters make appearances: the woman with a shady past (Ball), the young eloping couple (Patric Knowles and Wendy Barrie), the little boy set for reunion with his family (Casey Johnson), and the convict (Joseph Calleia). There’s no reinventing the wheel here, although considering this was one of the first in the genre the wheel wasn’t actually invented yet. Because the film takes over half its runtime, a brief hour and fifteen minutes, towards establishing characters, you get a better understanding of them and how they change once they land on the island.
Speaking of that plane crash, for 1939 it’s incredibly well done! I’m a huge hater of airplanes, so this film plays on all my fears: turbulence, bad weather, the belief that that pressure sealed door will just open at the slightest provocation (and have a small child near it to boot!). After that, the remote jungle in which they land looks like paradise! It is this Edenic principle that comes to the forefront with the brunt of the film. With Trumbo’s name as one of the screenwriters it isn’t surprising that the story focuses on how people can band together for survival, but also how they can overcome societal pressures (economic, gender, political) when removed from the actual society doing the pressuring.
At the start, little Tommy’s caregiver, Pete (Allen Jenkins) refuses to let Lucille Ball’s character, Peggy, near the boy because she’s not “a lady.” Once the group settles on to the island, Peggy, to her surprise more than anyone else’s, becomes Tommy’s surrogate mother; “Never thought I’d be the motherly type.” One of the film’s bigger, if not the biggest, name in the cast, Lucille Ball plays Peggy with enough mystery, but not enough to be threatening. She’s got into some trouble, but you never believe it’s anything murderous. She isn’t Lizabeth Scott after all!
Other standouts include C. Aubrey Smith and Elisabeth Risdon as the elderly couple, the Spenglers. Smith’s character, much like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island (they must have been waiting on another island…or maybe they were the natives everyone’s worried about?), provides all the necessary background on the group’s current home. He’s also the scientific man, of the land, allowing him to bond with Vasquez, the anarchist. Between those two and our pilots, the film not only explores the societal influences and corruption of Eden, but also the concept of the fears of Communism and the ability for political ideals to be changed in an environment safe from judgement.
Vasquez has the most compelling reason to stay on the island – he’ll be hanged when he gets home – and yet we never see him do anything life-threatening. He only ever resorts to violence at the end, when everyone realizes that, with not to lose, he’s responsible enough to decide who will stay and who will go. In fact, the villains end up being the cop charged with taking Vasquez back (and collecting a bounty on his head), played by John Carradine, and the drunken wealthy playboy, Judson. Calleia as Vasquez presents a strong, silent front. You never know what he’s thinking, yet the final reels see him taking charge and being the hero. (I bet that was Trumbo’s influence.)
Recently available for the first time on DVD through Warner Archive (hot on the heels of their 1939 box set), Five Came Back is an old-fashioned suspense tale just as enjoyable now as it was upon original release. The audience never knows what to expect, and the script takes the time to look at the politics of the situation, both inside and outside the island.
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