Five Came Back (1939) – A Review
A plane bound for Panama hits a storm, is blown off course and crashes into the Amazonian rainforest. The eclectic surviving group of nine passengers and two pilots realize it is unlikely rescuers will ever find them. They are surrounded by mountains that make it impossible for them to hike to the nearest civilized area. The situation looks grim.
Their only hope is for them to all work together to salvage food, make shelter while the pilots attempt to fix the damaged plane in order to fly over the mountains and return to civilization. But they better hurry, the sound of native headhunting drums are heard in the distance and are getting closer each day!
Can the plane ever take flight again? Can all these passengers put their differences aside and help each other survive? And take a guess how many people actually live through this ordeal and make it to the end credits. I’ll give you a hint – it’s in the title.
Five Came Back was made with the intention of being a throwaway B-movie by RKO. Clocking in at only 73 minutes, audiences took to the disaster-type premise (long before it became its own genre) and the film became an unexpected hit.
When I sat down to check it out I didn’t know much about the movie, only that it involved a plane, the title tips us off how many survivors will be left at the end and a 28-year-old Lucille Ball was in it.
And I think my reaction was much the same as the original audiences who saw it in theaters back in 1939, which is – ‘hey this was a pretty good movie. I should tell my friends to go see it’. It’s a similar premise as The Flight of the Phoenix and while I didn’t think it was as good as that 1965 film (not surprising since that movie is one of my favorites), Five Came Back was a real unexpected treat.
It’s an effective drama that keeps the tension up with the characters butting heads in this dangerous predicament. Among which, there’s the rich couple eloping, the older couple, a gangster looking after the son of his boss, a prisoner and his guard, a woman of mystery. Already just throwing this batch of people in the jungle could yield some interesting results if the filmmakers are smart. And thankfully they were.
Director John Farrow (who also directed the 1956 remake Back From Eternity) really manages to create a compelling story with some very good performances from the cast. Ball is very sexy in this, a trait I don’t normally attach to her. I think I’m like most people who think of her with bright red hair doing slapstick and crying for Ricky. She looks very attractive in this. Supposedly after years of being a studio contract player this film got her a lot of attention and really helped propel her career.
The characters are the driving force in this type of story and there are some interesting dynamics that form. Of course there’s some drama, tension and a bit of flirting that happens. And none of it ever feels melodramtic, artificial or forced. It’s all plays very natural.
It feels like a much fuller, juicier story than it’s running time would allow. Five Came Back really makes great use of its time and doesn’t waste a minute of it introducing everyone, allowing the diverse group of characters to interact and their character arcs to start to grow once their forced into this survival situation. It’s a real tight economical movie. I was very impressed after it ended and was left thinking ‘wow, that was only 73 minutes???’.
The movie also doesn’t look as ‘cheap’ as I initially suspected it would. Normally I would hear ‘a B-movie from 1939 set in the jungle’ and I would be waiting to see an obvious soundstage with a bunch of plants and fake trees all around. But the production design is much more convincing than I thought it would be.
Then you have that title. Going in you know only five people are going to make it out of this. So with that in mind I was constantly awaiting to see who that lucky five would be.
I would start to like certain characters and hope they were going to be one of the five fortunate survivors. Later disaster movies would do a similar thing of introducing this huge ensemble and make you wonder who would live and die.
Here, it’s kind of funny that the movie gives you the exact number going in. So if you happen to find yourself liking more than five characters – you know you’ve got some heartbreak coming your way.
It’s never boring and the ending (which I won’t give away) had an unexpected real emotional moment that caught me off guard. I’ve heard some say that Five Came Back is one of the greatest B-movies ever made. The film contains a lot to make a valid argument to that claim.
I don’t believe the film is available on dvd (which is a real shame), but if it happens upon television I say definitely check it out. I am very glad I did.
The films original trailer – I think TCM is your best bet to watch this movie, just keep yours eyes peeled for it