Skip to main content

There’s still one man out here some place.

Sole Survivor
(1970)

(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. 


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.