Sole Survivor: 1970 TV Movie Is Quite Good

Sole Survivor - 1970For a long (and in retrospect, lovely) time, my only mention on the internet was in the “Thanks” section of the Star Trek TNG List of Lists. I have no recollection why I was in it. My first wife was a big Star Trek fan. And I always try to get into whatever my wives are interested in. So I wasn’t completely immune to the excitement of last week’s 50th anniversary of the show. So I posted something on Facebook about how our future wouldn’t be that way and told people they should watch Sole Survivor, which stars William Shatner.

Sole Survivor is a made-for-television film from 1970. Shatner plays a fairly small role, even if he does get second billing. It is basically an hour and a half episode of The Twilight Zone, but in color. It tells the story of a flight crew on a bombing mission to Southern Europe during World War II. On their way back to Benghazi, their navigator freaks out and parachutes from the plane. As a result, the plane gets lost and the crew crash lands in the desert (thinking it the Mediterranean in the night). They all quickly die and hang out there as ghosts for 17 years when the cowardly navigator (now a general) returns.

Lady Be Good

The story is loosely (Very loosely; I mean: ghosts?!) on the US Air Force bomber Lady Be Good. It was thought to have crashed in the Mediterranean Sea in 1943. But in 1958, it was discovered over 400 miles inside Libya. Apparently, because of the wind and the sand, the desert looks very much like the ocean from the air at night. In 1960, five of the nine crewmen’s bodies were discovered. They were located 80 miles north of the crash site (indicating that they had walked about 60 miles after landing). This group managed to stay alive for eight days with just a single single canteen of water. Three of the others continued further north. Harold Ripslinger managed to walk a total of 200 miles from the crash site. The bombardier, John Woravka, apparently died on impact because of a parachute malfunction.

Sole Survivor Plot

Such a tragic, but ultimately heroic, story is obviously good fodder for a screenplay. It was the first produced screenplay by television veteran, Guerdon Trueblood — and quite a debut! I didn’t plan to watch it. I posted it on Facebook, so I had to load the film on YouTube. But since it was open in a tab, I decided to watch a bit to get the feel of it. And I was drawn in. The five dead crewmen are remarkably well differentiated, even if they are all stereotypes. And to deal with all the boredom of 17 years in the desert, they play baseball three times per day. And this is paid off beautifully in the open-ended and poignant ending.

A Deeper Film Than Most

The other half of the film, which involves living humans, is not as interesting. But it does deal with the issue of cowardice in a far more nuanced way than I can imagine it being dealt with today on network television. There were two aspects of it that are worth mentioning. The first is that there are acts of cowardice, not cowards. One act doesn’t define a life. I rather like that. At the same time, it shows that cowardice can become a way of life — the banality of cowardice, if you will. The second aspect was more vague, but it had to do with taking responsibility (if only to yourself) when you harm others.

Sole Survivor is hardly a great film. But it works and it is engaging. Almost the entire film has a single location. It shows what you can do with a simple set, fine actors, and a solid script. And the version available on YouTube looks fantastic. It’s worth checking out, but not going out of your way for. I think there is a clear enough reason why it has never been released on DVD.

5 thoughts on “Sole Survivor: 1970 TV Movie Is Quite Good

  1. If you want to have a “crash landed in the desert” film fest, I’d highly recommend adding The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), with its tight script and fine ensemble of classic actors (avoid the remake). And perhaps Sands of the Kalahari (1965), if only to see just how stunning Susannah York could be. As a pre-adolescent I found that one slightly disturbing psychologically, but mostly… oh, Susannah!

    • Ah, I love Hardy Kruger in Phoenix. And I don’t really mind Stewart, which is unusual for me. I’ll have to check out Kalahari. I really like Zulu, and this one has Endfield and Baker together again. I’ll look out for it. Although looking at the following scene makes me think that Monty Python was doing a parody of it in “Scott of the Sahara.”

  2. Well, Phoenix, like The Naked Spur or Winchester ’73, has cranky Jimmy Stewart instead of nice-guy Jimmy Stewart.

    • That’s it. I was also fine with him in Call Northside 777. As long as he isn’t someone I’m obviously supposed to like, he’s okay. The biggest problem is Stewart + Capra.

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