(SPOILERS) I’m one for whom Sole Survivor remained a half-remembered, muddled dream of ‘70s television viewing. I see (from this site) the BBC showed it both in 1979 and 1981 but, like many it seems, in my veiled memory it was a black and white picture, probably made in the 1950s and probably turning up on a Saturday afternoon on BBC2. Since no other picture readily fits that bill, and my movie apparition shares the salient plot points, I’ve had to conclude Sole Survivor is indeed the hitherto nameless picture; a TV movie first broadcast by the ABC network in 1970 (a more famous ABC Movie of the Week was Spielberg’s Duel). Survivor may turn out to be no more than a classic of the mind, but it’s nevertheless an effective little piece, one that could quite happily function on the stage and which features several strong performances and a signature last scene that accounts for its haunting reputation.
Directed by TV guy Paul Stanley and written by Guerdon Trueblood (The Last Hard Men, Jaws 3D), Sole Survivor centres on the wreckage of a B-34 Liberator that crashed in the Libyan. Five crewmen bailed out, but perished from exposure. Their ghosts inhabit the wreck, which is spotted 17 years later and leads to the arrival of an investigative team headed up by William Shatner’s Colonel Gronke and Vince Edwards’ Major Devlin. Accompanying them is the sole surviving sixth member of the flight, Brigadier General Hamner (Richard Basehart), the bomber’s navigator who, unbeknownst to any but the crew, panicked and bailed out when they first came under fire, an action that led to the plane getting lost and crashing.
While the element that sticks in the mind is the non-corporeal plight of the crew, by far the most significant portion of the picture is spent on the quest of Devlin to get to the truth of the matter, putting him at loggerheads with Gronke, who doesn’t want to upset Hamner (“The system’s been good to me”). The crew at times operate as something of a Greek chorus, posed in tableau and commenting on the action and how they might influence events. Hamner’s threats and resolve eventually crumble under Devlin’s whittling, leading him to take off in a jeep on the path to the location of the bodies of four of the crew (a bit of a stretch, but you just have to go with it), and the proof that he was lying about the plane flying on for 700 miles without a pilot.
The crew want justice served, although Devlin, dogged as he is, perceives Hamner’s actions with the benefit of the doubt. As self-deception disperses from the latter (“I might as well have murdered them”), Devlin comments “He made a mistake once” and that he takes no pleasure in breaking a man. Devlin too is haunted by the mistakes he has made, once bailing out of a plane that then crashed into a school.
The action leading to Hamner’s desert drive is the sight of his former crewmen during a drunken night’s walk by the plane, and it’s notable that the picture plays with ideas of the crew’s intangibility and presence. One would expect them to be rooted to the spot where they passed, but instead it’s the plane itself that holds them; when they attempt to retrieve a life raft near to where they died, two of them return reporting “We never got more than a mile or two away” and finding themselves back where they were before.
There are clearly some rules to this purgatory, but it’s curious that they even believed they could have moved the raft anyway. At the end we see Tony (Lou Antonio) using the bat and ball, but I’d presume that’s his subjective impression and that its part of there in-between state that they are not always conscious that they cannot manifest physically. They know they have passed (“What’s the matter, lieutenant? Don’t you believe in ghosts?”) but need to feel they are not impotent. This element also taps into the idea that the passed-on but trapped many not be fully aware of their deceased status.
It’s the conclusion that has the real impact, though. Tony had trekked back to the plane after they bailed out in order to look for water, but was flattened under the tail section. As his comrades’ bodies are recovered so they are released from this intermediate state, and Tony is left alone with the plane. All’s not lost for him, however, as the pilot’s diary has been found testifying to his plan of action, and Devlin heads back to the plane for another look. It’s this very specific set of rules for the resting in peace – or not – of the characters that surely made the picture so resonant, that and the idea of being left to a private netherworld/hell rather than one that at least provided shared misery.
Basehart’s guilt-suppressed performance is the standout, but both Edwards and the Shat (not long left Star Trek) are also strong. The latter portrays a notably unsympathetic character, self-interested and willing to ignore the truth to protect his pension (“Colonel, you are defending the fort, even after the enemy has been decimated”). He also gets the odd Shat-tastic line (“The Libyan desert is no place to make waves”), but generally he’s at his most subdued and non-hammy.
Paul Glass’ score is suitably eerie, and the imagery – even on the poor quality, subtitled YouTube copy, complete with ghostly blankfaces – is often memorable. Sole Survivor’s unlikely to mean much to anyone who doesn’t have a nostalgic connection to it, but it’s a solid piece of work in its own right, one that was inspired by a 1943 crash in the Libyan desert where eight survivors of a nine man crew died as they tried to walk to out the desert. They were found in 1960, two years after an oil survey team discovered the plane itself.