Monday 20 February 2017

Sole Survivor (1970)

Director: Paul Stanley
Writer: Guerdon Trueblood
Stars: Vince Edwards, William Shatner and Richard Basehart

This review is part of the Movie of the Week Blogathon hosted by Classic Film and TV Café.
I’ve taken part in a few blogathons in my time, but they’ve generally revolved around people, usually actors. However, this one is a little more interesting, courtesy of Rick Armstrong at Classic Film & TV Café, who has set up a Movie of the Week Blogathon with the goal of celebrating TV movies, made between the mid-sixties and the late-eighties. He aims for this to be an annual event, so I will put a list together for next year of some more TV movies I’ve been meaning to catch up with. This year, however, I was always going to go with Sole Survivor, which was first broadcast on CBS on 9th January, 1970. I first read about this film when researching William Shatner, a man whose early movie career is utterly fascinating, with an amazingly varied selection of interesting material up until he turned into a caricature of himself in, arguably, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Many, though far from all, of those films were made for TV and this is a great example of television a lot deeper than Captain Kirk, T. J. Hooker and Denny Crane.

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.
Sole Survivor came along a decade later, but there are successors to this story as well as predecessors. A British horror writer, James Herbert, wrote a novel in 1976 called The Survivor, which introduced a supernatural angle to his work. This particular novel began with the horrific crash of a 747 passenger jet which took the lives of everyone on board except for one, then followed him, the co-pilot, who is utterly and mysteriously unhurt. This book was filmed under the same name, in Australia in 1981, with Robert Powell in the title role, and that combination stayed with me long enough to spoil the legendary twist of The Sixth Sense. I recall realising, two thirds of the way through that movie, that I’d taken its twist for granted from the outset. Looking back, after seeing this, I can see a direct line of influence from Serling to Shyamalan, via Guerdon Trueblood, who wrote this original screenplay, and Herbert. Coincidentally, Silver Screenings chose to cover Trueblood’s other 1970 TV movie, The Love War, for this very blogathon.

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.
We watch too and, while the flashback outlines where we’re going to end up, we have no idea at this point how we’re going to get there. The leads are Edwards and Shatner, who are doing the same job but with a very different level of intensity. The latter is the man in charge, Lt. Col. Josef Gronke, but he doesn’t want to rock the boat, two years away from retirement; he’s not going to ‘lock horns’ with a brigadier general. The former has no such qualms, for personal reasons which we’ll soon discover; he’s a driven man who sees the truth as more important than a colleague’s career. Even at this point, a third of the way into the picture, there isn’t a clear direction. Is this a straightforward investigation case, only with ghosts? Is it a Tell-Tale Heart style guilt trip for the general? Given that the crash was seventeen years ago and Gronke has served for eighteen, is there a hidden past that’s going to be trawled out? Is he simply playing good cop to Devlin’s bad cop? I appreciated the possibilities that Trueblood left open for us.

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.
Maj. Devlin is the emphatical focus and Vince Edwards ably has him drive the story forward with passion which remains even after its origin has been explained. Shatner is second billed, but the character flaws of Lt. Col. Gronke bolster the other actors on screen more than they allow him opportunities. What he gets is great dialogue, as most of the best lines are given to Shatner. ‘The Libyan desert is no place to make waves,’ Gronke tells Devlin, one of a number of his lines that made me smile. The real supporting slot is that of Brig. Gen. Hamner and Richard Basehart is the actor given the most opportunity to emote, whether drunk or sober, which he is more than happy to explore. The presence of the five ghost airmen prevent the script from descending into a battle between Devlin and Hamner; they serve as a very effective Greek chorus. Even if it takes some time for us to gather up their names (they’re collectively Mac, Tony, Brandy, Gant and Elmo), we’re right there with them as what become seen as the victims of this tragedy.

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.
While it was William Shatner who drew me to this film, it’s the brooding Vince Edwards who leaves it foremost in my mind. Also of note are Patrick Wayne, credited as Pat, and Lou Antonio; the former plays Mac, the Home Run’s captain, with respect and abiding courage, while the latter plays the odd man out of the five ghosts, a characteristic that lends his character some real substance. It’s unfair to overlook Richard Basehart either, especially if we’ve seen prior films as varied as He Walked by Night, Fixed Bayonets! and La Strada. He also played Ivan, the middle of The Brothers Karamazov, in MGM’s 1958 take on the novel; his younger brother, Alexi, was played by William Shatner, not the sort of actor you expect to show up in a Dostoevsky adaptation. Then again, he’s not the sort of actor you expect to play, a year after the end of Star Trek, a colonel so weak in character that he tightrope walks his way through a military career. He plays him well though, in yet another memorable, fascinating but sadly unknown movie from his early career.

Thank you, Rick Armstrong and Classic Film & TV Café for prompting me to get round to this one.


Rick29 said...

I've always considered SOLE SURVIVOR to be a film about actual ghosts, but--after re-reading your review--I'm having second thoughts (and have even rewritten my comment). I think it may be a more nuanced film than what I remember (I may not have not seen it since its original broadcast). It's undeniably a well-done drama that still lingers in my memory. I've always been a Richard Basehart fan and his performance, as always, is rock solid. But then, it's a fine cast and I agree that it's one of William Shatner's best performance. This is an excellent review and I especially appreciate the background info, as I was only aware of the TZ episode connection.

Silver Screenings said...

This is a brand-new one to me. Based on your thoughtful review, I think I'll enjoy it very much. Thanks for a terrific introduction to "Sole Survivor".

Unknown said...

I knew there was a reason I never forgot this movie viewed as a kid in '70. So glad I found your review. It helped me remember the (better)writing and acting.
My Dad was a Paratrooper in WWII who instilled my interest in fine military stories to remember all those who gave their lives.
My 4 brothers got to build Plane models while I had to struggle washing dishes & "dreaming of finding Mr. Right".
I should've just gone into the military myself...

TJM said...

The version I saw back in 1970 had Vince Edwards going back and finding Tony (Lou Antonio) remains under the tale of the plane. The one I just saw had Tony swing the bat and the fades outgoing upward.

Unknown said...

Vince Edwards was in a jeep driving back to the wreck but the movie ends at that point. It is left to the viewer's imagination as to whether he actually finds Tony's remains under the tail.