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Film / Five Came Back

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Five Came Back is a 1939 film directed by John Farrow. The plot involves a mixed party aboard a plane headed for Panama City, Panama. The group on the plane includes:

  • Judson and Alice, a rich young man and his girlfriend who are eloping because their parents don't approve of the match.
  • Henry and Martha Spengler, he being a professor of botany and she being his nagging wife.
  • Tommy, the small son of a notorious New York mobster, and Pete, the mobster's hoodlum who is doubling as Tommy's escort to Panama.
  • Peggy, a woman with a reputation.
  • Crimp, a bounty hunter who is taking along Vasquez the anarchist. Vasquez is wanted for murder and is facing execution.
  • The crew, consisting of pilots Bill and Joe and Larry the steward.

Their propeller plane flies into a storm, the flight is blown off course, and after engine failure, the pilots have to ditch somewhere in the upper reaches of the Amazon. After weeks in the wilderness Bill and Joe manage to get the plane ready to fly—but it won't be able to carry everyone back. And there's a tribe of headhunters out there.

Made on a pretty low budget, Five Came Back was a surprise hit, and is today regarded as one of the earliest disaster movies. The Ensemble Cast includes John Carradine (Crimp) and a young, shockingly gorgeous Lucille Ball (Peggy).

Remade in 1956 as Back from Eternity, with John Farrow directing once again. This version cast Anita Ekberg in the Lucille Ball prostitute role (here called Rena), with Robert Ryan as Bill the pilot and Rod Steiger as the anarchist (here called Vasquel). It is a highly faithful remake, with the main change being about 20 minutes extra time to further flesh out the characters.

Tropes in this film:

  • Bittersweet Ending: The Spenglers die and Vasquez is about to die, but Bill, Joe, Alice, Peggy, and Tommy make it out.
  • Character Development: Lots. Vasquez, the murderous terrorist, winds up as the biggest hero in the group, refusing Judson's bribe and staying behind to die. The bitchy, snobby Mrs. Spengler is humbled, and agrees to be part of the Heroic Sacrifice. On the other hand, the seemingly sympathetic Judson is revealed to be a weakling and a Dirty Coward to boot (see below).
  • Cold Equation: With one engine too damaged to repair, and a very short runway that they had to hack out of the jungle, the pilots explain to their passengers that the plane will only be able to take five people. And the Cold Equation part comes into effect thanks to the headhunters, who have become aware of the little group and are about to kill them all. Whoever isn't on the plane is certain to die.
  • Dirty Coward: Judson, who seems more or less sympathetic before the crash, reveals his true colors in the jungle. He spends most of their time there complaining and drinking from his private liquor stash, he tries to pressure Alice into some Pre-Climax Climax sex, he tries to bribe his way onto the plane, and when that doesn't work he tries to shoot his way onto the plane.
  • Disaster Movie: One of the very first ever, with the passengers and crew of a plane struggling to survive after a crash. Not the first, as both Deluge (1933, about a tsunami) and San Francisco (1936, about the '06 quake) pre-date this one.
  • Doomed Contrarian: Judson doesn't want to let Bill be in charge, doesn't think the plane can ever be fixed, and recommends that they try walking over the mountains. He gets killed. Crimp also doesn't want to follow orders, and tries to leave the group. He's killed by the headhunters, alerting them to the rest of the party.
  • Dramatic Irony: One scene features a man organizing a search party for the crashed plane. He says it's "not likely that they crossed the mountains into the valleys near the Amazon." This is exactly what did happen, because the plane's navigation failed and it was blown off course during the storm. This is also why there's no hope of rescue.
  • Elopement: This is why Judson and Alice are on the plane—they're escaping their parents.
  • Ensemble Cast: A pretty balanced cast with no clear leading characters.
  • Face Death with Dignity: After the plane flies away, leaving Vasquez and the Spenglers doomed to certain death, Mrs. Spengler calmly says "I'll go and fix the fire."
  • Fight to Survive: Struggling to fix the plane and get out before the headhunters get them.
  • The Ghost: The headhunters. They're out there, and the crash survivors can hear their drums, but they are never seen, except for some feet running through the jungle at the very end.
  • The Great Repair: The pilots spend weeks repairing the plane, the only hope any of them have of escaping the jungle.
  • Gun Struggle: A brief one between Judson and Vasquez after Vasquez does not pick Judson to go on the plane. Judson is killed.
  • Henpecked Husband: Mrs. Spengler is pretty bossy. She won't even let her husband eat chili.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The Spenglers, being old, decide they will stay behind so that the younger passengers can escape and live on. Vasquez's decision to stay behind is logical enough, as he is very likely to be executed, but he also decides to use his two Mercy Kill bullets on the Spenglers, which means he dooms himself to be tortured and killed by the headhunters.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold / The Mistress: Thanks to The Hays Code, the film doesn't quite explain it, but Peggy is one of these. As the passengers are leaving California, Peggy gets a note saying "thank you" from some man—presumably that man is bundling her away after finding her continued presence inconvenient. Peggy at one point says there's nothing back home for her, and says that the cause of her problems is "men". The disapproval some of the other passengers show for her hints at the Hooker with a Heart of Gold explanation. Alice gets way too defensive when Peggy tries to help a drunk Judson into his bed on the plane. Note this exchange, when Peggy offers to comfort Tommy after a radio broadcast about his father's murder.
    Peggy: Let me hold him, he needs a woman.
    Pete: He needs a lady.
  • Jungle Drums: How the white people know that the murderous headhunters are on the way.
  • Maybe Ever After: Alice-Joe and Bill-Peggy both have tentative conversations about their feelings for each other before the plane takes off.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Discussed Trope, then averted, as someone suggests "women and children first" on the plane, while the women insist on the right to choose for themselves.
  • The Natives Are Restless: Prof. Spengler explains to the others that they can't waste too much time in the jungle because there are bloodthirsty headhunting natives out there that will kill them. Later, the sound of drums lets everyone know that the natives are going to attack soon. It's arguably a pretty racist plot point, but necessary in this film for dramatic tension, as otherwise the folks flying out on the plane could just send help back.
  • "Number of Objects" Title: Lets the audience know just how many people will make it out of the jungle.
  • Poisoned Weapons: The headhunters kill Pete with a poisoned arrow.
  • Red Shirt: Larry the steward doesn't even make it to the jungle, falling out a door of the propeller plane to his death when they're caught in the storm.
  • Robinsonade: The second act involves the little group surviving in the jungle, hunting and building huts, while the pilots spend weeks repairing the plane.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: There's no point in Vasquez going on the plane, so he's allowed to pick who will go and who won't. Judson offers to get Vasquez the best lawyer in the world if he agrees for the both of them to leave together. Vasquez contemptuously refuses.

Tropes found in Back from Eternity:

  • Cat Fight: Rena and Louise have a little wrestling match in the pond after Rena points out the obvious crush Louise is developing for Joe.
  • Gender Flip: Larry the steward becomes Maria the stewardess. Maria gets a little more character work than Larry who is basically an extra, but she still gets sucked out the door.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Bill describes Rena's future fate as a South American High-Class Call Girl as "a gay life and a short one."
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: While it's rather ambiguous just what is Peggy's deal in the 1939 film—hooker? Suddenly inconvenient mistress? Kept woman?—the later film is more clear, without quite saying so. Rena is a High-Class Call Girl who is in America on fake identity papers, and is being dispatched to a fancy South American brothel because immigration is on to her.
  • Sexy Soaked Shirt: Is that Anita Ekberg falling into a pond and getting soaked? Why yes it is!
  • What Does She See in Him?: While in the 1939 version Jud's descent into villainy comes as something of a surprise after the plane lands, here he is more obviously telegraphed as a weasel from the start. Joe the pilot wonders what a classy lady like Louise ("Alice" in the first film) sees in him.