Five Came Back

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Five Came Back
Directed by John Farrow
Produced by Robert Sisk
Written by Richard Carroll (story)
Jerry Cady
Dalton Trumbo
Nathanael West
Starring Chester Morris
Lucille Ball
Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Edited by Harry Marker
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • June 23, 1939 (1939-06-23)
Running time
73 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $225,000[1]
Box office $721,000[1]

Five Came Back is a 1939 American melodrama and a precursor of the disaster film genre. The film was directed by John Farrow, photographed by renowned film noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and written by Jerry Cady, Dalton Trumbo, and Nathanael West. Although considered a B movie, the notices received by Lucille Ball helped launch her as an A-list actress.[2]

In 1948, Five Came Back was remade (differing only in minor details) as the Mexican film Los que volvieron.[3] In 1956, producer-director Farrow remade the film as Back from Eternity starring Robert Ryan and Anita Ekberg.


Nine passengers board a commercial flight from Los Angeles to Panama City: wealthy Judson Ellis (Patric Knowles) and Alice Melbourne (Wendy Barrie), eloping because their parents disapprove; an elderly couple, Professor Henry Spengler (C. Aubrey Smith) and his wife Martha (Elisabeth Risdon); Tommy Mulvaney (Casey Johnson), the young son of a gangster, and his escort, gunman Pete (Allen Jenkins); Peggy Nolan (Lucille Ball), a woman of ill repute; and Vasquez (Joseph Calleia), an anarchist being extradited and facing a death sentence for killing a high-ranking politician, and his guard, Crimp (John Carradine), who expects a $5,000 reward for delivering him. Pilot Bill Brooks (Chester Morris), co-pilot Joe (Kent Taylor), and steward Larry (Dick Hogan) comprise the crew.

On their way to Panama, a fierce nighttime storm buffets their airliner, The Silver Queen. A gas cylinder comes loose and is thrown against the door, forcing it open; Larry falls out to his death. An engine fails and the pilots are forced to crash-land in the jungle. In the morning, the professor recognizes plants of the Amazon rainforest: the aircraft has been blown far south of where rescuers would search, and the nearest civilization is across the mountains. But there is water where they are, and enough fruit and game to live on.

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

On the 23rd 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, which has a poison dart in it. Pete orders Peggy to take Tommy to safety while he covers their retreat, and is also killed by the unseen natives.

The remaining survivors board the now-repaired aircraft, but as the engines rev up, an oil leak develops. Bill and Joe patch it, but realize that it will fail some time after takeoff, leaving only one working engine. As a result, the aircraft can only carry four adults and Tommy across the mountains. As everyone tries to decide how to choose who must stay and face the hostile natives, Vasquez suddenly grabs a gun and announces that, since he is doomed no matter what, he is the only one without bias and will make the decision. While repairs are being made, he is approached by Professor Spengler, who says he and his wife have lived their lives and should stay, and by Judson, who tries to bribe Vasquez by offering to pay for a top lawyer.

When the aircraft is ready, Vasquez announces that both pilots and both of the younger women will go along with Tommy. Judson attacks, and Vasquez shoots him dead. The aircraft takes off, leaving Vasquez and the Spenglers. As the natives approach, Professor Spengler quietly informs Vasquez that they must not be taken alive, as they will be tortured. Vasquez lies to him, telling him that there are three bullets left. He kills the couple with his last two bullets, and waits for his grisly fate.



Capelis XC-12

Although primarily shot in a backlot, Five Came Back overcame some of the limitations of the low-budget film. The fiery director insisted on a realistic jungle environment, and had trees imported to flesh out the landscape of the sound stage. Complicated by unwanted attention from the lead actor,[4] the clashes between Farrow and a contract player, Lucille Ball,[N 1] made for a tense set; when two Black Widow spiders dropped out of a tree onto Ball's head, she was extremely upset and left the set, screaming.[5][N 2]

Almost a character in its own right, the aircraft used in Five Came Back is the Capelis XC-12, built in 1933 by Capelis Safety Airplane Corporation of California. It was a 12-place, low-wing cabin monoplane with two 525 hp Wright Cyclone engines. Funded by local Greek restaurateurs as a promotional aircraft, and constructed with help from University of California students, the U.S. patent #1,745,600 was 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 wing spar was bolted together, and much of the skin attached with P-K self-tapping 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 (the 1942 Flying Tigers, starring John Wayne, and others) before reportedly being scrapped. Flying shots in films were of a model; the aircraft itself was grounded by the studio's insurance company.[6]

Principal photography was completed on April 26, 1939, coming in at an estimated $225,000.[4]


In his July 5, 1939 review in The New York Times, Frank Nugent praised Five Came Back as "a rousing salute to melodrama, suspenseful as a slow-burning fuse, exciting as a pinwheel, spectacularly explosive as an aerial bomb."[7]

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

Five Came Back was also notable for lively "street smart" dialogue attributed to its team of distinguished screenwriters. Both Cady and West were later to be nominated for Academy Awards in future projects while Trumbo became one of Hollywood's most acclaimed screenwriters with two Oscars to his credit.[8]

Even though the studio had planned it as a standard "B" movie, Five Came Back became a surprise hit that "quickly amassed an enthusiastic word-of-mouth campaign among moviegoers."[8] The film, which cost $225,000 to make, eventually earned $262,000 in profits and collected substantial critical praise."[9]

"The film is widely viewed as having paved the way for disaster epics of the '70s, like Airport and Poseidon Adventure."[4]



  1. ^ The role of Peggy Nolan had originally been offered to Ann Sothern but she was too busy, and Ball, the reputed "Queen of the Bs", ended up with the part.[2]
  2. ^ Lucille Ball overcame the advances from Morris and arguments with Farrow to gain a measure of redemption when critics singled out her performance in Five Came Back as memorable, which led to her gaining larger roles.[5]


  1. ^ a b "Richard B. Jewell's RKO film grosses, 1929–51: The C. J. Trevlin Ledger: A comment." Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Volume 14, Issue 1, 1994.
  2. ^ a b Ball 1997, p. 92.
  3. ^ Los que volvieron at the Internet Movie Database
  4. ^ a b c De la Hoz 2007, p. 189.
  5. ^ a b Brady 2001, p. 88.
  6. ^ "Capelis." Aerofiles, 2007. Retrieved: June 24, 2007.
  7. ^ Nugent, Frank S. "The Rialto Sets Off Some Fireworks With 'Five Came Back'." The New York Times, July 5, 1939.
  8. ^ a b Stafford, Jeff. "Articles: Five Came Back." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 30, 2012.
  9. ^ Jewell 1982, p. 131.


  • Ball, Lucille. Love, Lucy. New York: Berkley, 1997. ISBN 978-0-42517-731-0.
  • Brady, Kathleen. Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001. ISBN 978-0-82308-913-0.
  • De la Hoz, Cindy. Lucy at the Movies. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Running Press Book Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7624-2706-2.
  • Farmer, James H. Broken Wings: Hollywood's Air Crashes. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co., 1984. ISBN 978-9-999926-515.
  • Gunston, Bill. World Encyclopaedia of Aircraft Manufacturers: From the Pioneers to the Present Day. Annapolis, Maryland: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1994. ISBN 978-1-55750-939-0.
  • Hughes, Howard. When Eagles Dared: The Filmgoers' History of World War II. London: I. B. Tauris, 2012. ISBN 978-1-84885-650-9.
  • Jewell, Richard B. The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1982. ISBN 0-517-54656-6.
  • Wynne, H. Hugh. The Motion Picture Stunt Pilots and Hollywood's Classic Aviation Movies. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1987. ISBN 0-933126-85-9.

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