Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Sole Survivor

More brilliance from the Internets. From YouTube: Sole Survivor (1970). The image quality isn't great, the soundtrack grotty, and the copyright undoubtedly very grey, but it's the only place you're likely to see this superior CBS TV movie, which has acquired a cult following.

It opens with a group of ragged and cynical US airmen sheltering in the vicinity of a wrecked B-25 Mitchell bomber in the desert. Shortly an aeroplane flies overhead and a recovery team arrives - at which point the story takes a major turn when we realise the airmen aren't crash survivors but ghosts, and it is 18 years since the crash. The site is being investigated by Major Michael Devlin (Vince Edwards) and Lieutenant-Colonel Josef Gronke (played by William Shatner), who have brought along the powerful Brigadier-General Russell Hamner (Richard Baseheart). The find is a mystery, since Hamner, the original navigator of the bomber, has said that he and all the crew bailed out over the sea 700 miles away. Gradually the backstory emerges: that Hamner bailed out prematurely in combat; this act of cowardice caused the misnavigation that led the rest of the crew to become stranded in the desert. The ghostly crew, through limited ability to move objects and to manifest as hauntings, attempt to guide Devlin and Gronke to the truth of events and to find their remains; otherwise, they will be doomed to an eternity in limbo at the crash site. It's a clever and poignant story, making the most of its single-location story with tight dialogue of stage-play quality. For whatever reason, it hasn't been on TV for decades and it's well possible that it has been lost apart from poor video copies. It's very worth watching.

See Wikipedia for the basics: Sole Survivor (1970 film). The story is closely based on the real-life incident of the Lady Be Good, a American B-24D Liberator bomber and its crew, similarly lost in the Libyan desert through a navigation error in 1943, and not rediscovered until 1958. I'm unaware of any direct evidence, but it seems very likely that Elleston Trevor's 1964 novel The Flight of the Phoenix, though more upbeat in its outcome, was inspired by the Lady Be Good incident (the 1964 review in Air Pictorial: Journal of the Air League, Volume 26, noted the similarity of scenario).

- Ray

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