Five Came Back
Once in a while a movie overcomes its B origins and turns out to be pretty damn good. This is one time. There are several reasons. First, two of the screenwriters were Nathaniel West and Dalton Trumbo, who went on to win two Oscars and star in the Hollywood blacklist. They write good dialogue. Second, it was the breakout role for Lucille Ball, a contract player at RKO. And third, a good choice of title. You know the plane took off with 12 souls and you know only 5 will make it out of the forced landing in the jungle. Three die before the plane is ready to leave, so four must remain behind, to be eaten by head-hunters. Who will go? Who will stay? Makes for good narrative tension.
Another reason, for me and other aviation buffs, is the plane itself. It looks a lot like a DC-3, but it has a biplane-boxkite tail and a weird forward-slanting cockpit window. What’s that all about? Turns out that plane was a bigger star than many players at the studio. It had roles in 15 movies … but always on the ground, never flying. Why? Well, it’s a funny story. It was a one-off, a Capellis XC-12 (where were the -10, -11, etc.?), funded by Greek businessmen in LA and built by engineering students at UC. It flew, but not for long. They had used self-tapping screws instead of rivets. The screws were rattled loose by vibration, and had to be tightened or replaced after every flight! I can see the crew reciting Hail Marys every time they landed, then going out to count the missing screws. But it made a damn good prop at RKO, so it appeared in most of their movies involving airplanes, parked on the tarmac just as though it were a real plane. Unlike a plywood prop, the engines on the XC-12 could be started. It also simplified movies about air crashes. Aircraft manufacturers naturally didn’t like to see one of their recognizable planes crash in a film, but the former owners of the XC-12 could not complain, and no other plane looked like it.
Air travel was different back then. Airplanes still had names, like locomotives. This one is the Silver Queen. With a top speed of around 190 mph, flights of any great distance would last a long time, so ships like the Pan-Am Clipper and this one were convertible, like Pullman cars. This one had room for only ten short, narrow passenger berths, two pilots, and a steward. It didn’t look comfortable, but it was better than sitting upright in a seat and trying to sleep, as high-end airlines are re-discovering these days.
It’s a good tale of survival, and like most, stars an easily categorizable bunch of characters: the wise old professor (C. Aubrey Smith) and his wife; the spoiled rich guy with no morals and his betrothed; the sweet little kid; the gangster from Brooklyn; the man being extradited home for execution; and the cynical “fallen woman” with a heart of gold (Lucy). Might as well be the cast of Stagecoach, right? Especially since John Carradine is the nasty drunk with a gun. There are several wild impossibilities. The idea that the plane could land in dense jungle and end up anything but shredded metal sprinkled with severed limbs is laughable, but no one even has a bruise. The idea that a storm could push a plane bound from San Diego to Panama to a spot “somewhere east of the Andes, at the headwaters of the Amazon” is ridiculous. That they could clear enough jungle to provide a runway for the take-off … well, just set all those things aside, if you can, and you should be able to enjoy it.