came back

Five Came Back

Five Came Back is a 1939 melodrama and a precursor of the disaster film genre. A B movie with an A-level cast and crew, the film boasts direction by John Farrow, photography by renowned film noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and a screenplay by Jerry Cady, Dalton Trumbo and Nathanael West.

In 1956, producer-director Farrow remade the film as Back from Eternity, starring Robert Ryan and Anita Ekberg. However, despite a larger budget, most critics considered it inferior to this version.


Nine passengers board a commercial flight to Panama City:

The pilot, Bill Brooks (Chester Morris), co-pilot Joe (Kent Taylor) and Larry the steward comprise the crew.

A fierce storm buffets their airplane. A gas cylinder gets loose and is thrown against the door, forcing it open; Larry falls out to his death. The plane is blown far south of where rescuers would search and crash-lands in the dense Amazonian jungle.

As weeks go by, Bill and Joe struggle to repair the engines, while the others clear a runway. The experience changes everyone. The Spenglers rediscover their love for each other. Bill warms to an appreciative Peggy, though she tells him about her past. The biggest change is in Vasquez. Seeing how well most of the group have coped with their situation, he reconsiders his radical beliefs. Alice toughens up, but Judson goes to pieces, staying drunk much of the time.

On the twenty-third day, Crimp disappears. It is Tommy who eventually discovers him. When Peggy and Pete go looking for the boy, he leads them to the body; they realize he has been killed by a poison dart. Pete orders Peggy to take Tommy to safety while he covers their retreat. He is also killed by the unseen natives.

The rest board the now-repaired plane, but an oil leak develops, leaving only one working engine. As a result, the plane can only carry four adults and Tommy. Vasquez suddenly grabs the gun from Bill and announces that, since he is doomed no matter what, he will decide who goes and who stays. The Spenglers volunteer to remain behind. Judson tries to bribe Vasquez. When Vasquez decides that he will not be a passenger, Judson attacks and is shot dead.

The plane successfully takes off. Professor Spengler informs Vasquez that if they are taken alive, they will be tortured. Vasquez lies to him, telling him that there are three bullets left when there are only two. He kills the couple, then awaits his grisly fate.



Almost a character in its own right, the airplane used in Five Came Back is the Capelis XC-12, built in 1933 by Capelis Safety Airplane Corporation of California. The plane is described at an American aviation history reference and research Web site, Aerofiles:
XC-12 1933 = 12pClwM rg*; two 525hp Wright Cyclone; span: 55'0" length: 42'0" load: 3000# v: 220/190/65. Dr John E Younger; POP: 1 [X12762]. All-metal; triple biplane tail; partly-retracting gear, which extended automatically when the throttle was closed.
Funded by local Greek restaurateurs as a promotional aircraft, and constructed with help from University of California students. US patent #1,745,600 issued to Socrates H Capelis, of El Cerrito, in 1930 (a modified application for patent of the design with a half-span dorsal wing and two more engines appears in 1932). The main spar was bolted together, and much of the skin attached with P-K screws rather than rivets. These tended to vibrate loose, requiring tightening or replacing every few flights. Promotional tours were soon abandoned, and its career ended as a movie prop, appearing in ground roles in several motion pictures (Five Came Back 1939, Flying Tigers 1942, others) before reportedly being scrapped c.1943. Flying shots in films were of a model; the plane itself was grounded by the studio's insurance company.


In his July 5 1939 New York Times review, Frank Nugent praised it as "a rousing salute to melodrama, suspenseful as a slow-burning fuse, exciting as a pinwheel, spectacularly explosive as an aerial bomb.

"In 1939, John Farrow directed one of the most exciting 'B' films in company history," wrote Richard B. Jewell in The RKO Story. "Since the title indicated how many would make it out alive, audience members were kept on the edge of their seats," according to Jewell, Professor of American Film at the University of Southern California. Jewell describes the film as "one of the very best programme melodramas in RKO history. ...

Five Came Back, which cost a mere $225,000 to make, eventually earned $262,000 in profits and collected substantial critical praise.


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