Director: Paul Stanley
Writer: Guerdon Trueblood
Stars: Vince Edwards, William Shatner and Richard Basehart
We don’t meet Shatner for a while. Instead we’re introduced slowly and subtly to a scene while the opening credits roll, through a combination of visuals, sound and music. We’re in the desert, which we later find out is in Libya, looking at the wreck of a bomber, a B-25 Mitchell which is strafed with bullet holes. There’s a pitcher painted on the hull, throwing a baseball with a broken swastika on it, above the name of the plane. As we realise we’re looking at the corpse of the Home Run, the desert wind gives way to strains of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, played plaintively on the harmonica. Then we hear a progression of machine gun fire, radio chatter and jazz music, as if the Home Run itself is waking up and remembering what happened to it. Sure enough, the next thing we see is a human being, one of five who are using the plane as shelter. They’re all in uniform, surely the men who flew the old bird and it’s clear that they haven’t left this remote site in the last seventeen years, not least because they haven’t aged. Yes, they’re all ghosts.
Well, given that the movie is called Sole Survivor, we initially wonder which one of them is alive and which four are only alive in his memories, but it doesn’t take long to figure out to whom the title is truly referring. That revelation arrives as a result of a couple of Brits sighting the well-preserved wreckage from above. The sixth and only missing member of the crew is Russ Hamner, who is far from a ghost and far from Libya. He parachuted out, survived the rest of World War II and worked his way up the ranks to become Brig. Gen. Hamner; he’s about to be informed of the long overdue discovery of his old bird by a pair of officers who are working for the Inspector General’s office. The Home Run is three hundred miles south of Benghazi, which means seven hundred from where he reported it lost off the coast of Sicily. ‘All we have are you and the plane,’ is a very telling comment and, sure enough, Hamner flies on with them to the Libyan desert to investigate the wreck and try to figure out what happened to it and its remaining crew.
Now, this introduction may sound rather familiar to you, but why may depend on how old you are. Military historians, who will be avid viewers of this feature, may well realise that the Home Run is based on a real bomber, a B-24 Liberator called the Lady Be Good, which was lost after a bombing raid on Naples in 1943 but re-discovered in the Libyan desert by a BP exploration team in 1958; the crew had overflown their air base in a sandstorm and, because of a navigation system limitation, continued on the precise opposite course to what they needed until they ran out of fuel. Television fans from the generation before mine may remember an episode of The Twilight Zone called King Nine Will Not Return, which began that show’s second season in 1960 with Rod Serling introducing in person for the first time. This was fiction based on the Lady Be Good, the bodies of whose crew had coincidentally been found only a couple of weeks before the episode aired; a grave marker in the episode deliberately carries the date the Lady Be Good was lost.
There’s a lot to like in this movie, which is at turns brutal, suspenseful and touching. The latter first shows up with the trucks that bring people to the wreck for the first time in seventeen years. Capt. MacDonald, played by Patrick Wayne, lines all his men up for inspection and he smartly salutes the investigator who walks towards them. Maj. Michael Devlin, in the form of the leading man, Vince Edwards, even touches his cap, as if in response, but it’s just an instinctive action as he says of the plane, ‘I wish it could talk.’ This is the point where it’s finally confirmed to our five young airmen that they’re truly dead; as they adjust to something they’ve considered already, they hang around to see what will happen. Initially, they don’t even recognise their former colleague. ‘Don’t look much like him,’ one states. ‘It’s him... and it isn’t,’ suggests another. ‘If it is him, he lived,’ underlines a third. A chilling scene follows as Hamner climbs back into his old seat to remember and the ghosts of the five men he survived crowd around to watch.
The film benefits from them as much as it does the eventual twist, which I didn’t see coming. The sheer brutality of it is tempered somewhat by a scene unfolding a few miles away, but the actual ending is left open for us. The sadistic among us will take it in one direction, with the ramifications truly horrifying, but the hopeful of our number will see a very satisfactory conclusion. I must add that this is far from a cop-out; it’s a very clever ending indeed. Trueblood’s filmography is hardly stuffed with masterpieces, as the writer of The Savage Bees and Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo, as the director of The Candy Snatchers or even as an actor, a role which he only filled once, in Meatcleaver Massacre; when your most seen movie is Jaws 3-D, you’re not going to be remembered well. That’s a real shame, because this picture is well written through and through, with some sharp dialogue, some clever plot progression and some neat character development, not to mention some worthy little touches here and there to add depth.
What’s more, they grow too! They’re far from cardboard cutouts hanging around the wreck of the Home Run waiting for someone to notice them. They’re also more than just props to move the script along, adding little details where necessary to set up the next discovery. They provide a very human face to tragedy, providing us with a bridge to the past and reminding us of how things have changed. Until these investigators drive up in trucks, they aren’t even aware that the war is over, let alone that they didn’t survive it. At one point, dispatches arrive for the general by helicopter, something none of them have ever seen, though some remember hearing about such an invention. ‘I wonder if this is the only progress the human race has made in seventeen years,’ one of them philosophises. When the investigators listen to a baseball game on the radio, the ghosts listen and Elmo comments, ‘I don’t know how they worked it, but Brooklyn is now in Los Angeles.’ The littlest thing is huge when you’ve been lost for seventeen years.
Thank you, Rick Armstrong and Classic Film & TV Café for prompting me to get round to this one.