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 black-and-white melodrama from RKO Radio Pictures, produced by Robert Sisk, directed by John Farrow, and starring Chester Morris and Lucille Ball. The film was photographed by renowned film noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and written by Jerry Cady, Dalton Trumbo, and Nathanael West. Although considered a B movie, the positive notices received by Lucille Ball helped launch her as an A-list actress.[2] Five Came Back is considered a precursor of the disaster film genre."[3]

In 1948 Five Came Back was remade (differing only in minor details) as the Mexican film Los que volvieron.[4] 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 with a shady past; 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 is shaken loose and is thrown against the cabin's entry hatch, forcing it open; steward Larry attempts to close it but falls to his death. An engine then fails and the pilots are forced to crash-land in jungle terrain. In the morning the professor recognizes plants of the Amazon rainforest: the aircraft has been blown far south of where rescuers will search; the nearest civilization is across the mountains. But there is water and enough fruit and game for everyone to live on.

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

On the 23rd day, Crimp disappears; Tommy eventually discovers his dead body. When Peggy and Pete go looking for Tommy, he leads them to Crimp's body, which has a poison dart stuck in it. Pete orders Peggy to take Tommy to safety while he covers their retreat, but he is quickly killed by unseen natives.

The remaining survivors board the now-repaired airliner, but as the engines turn over, an oil leak develops. Bill and Joe patch it, but realize that their repair will fail some time after takeoff, leaving only one running 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 hostiles, Vasquez suddenly grabs a pistol and announces that, since he is doomed no matter what, he is the only one without bias and will make the decision. While the leak repairs are being made, he is approached by Professor Spengler, who says that he and his wife have lived their lives and should stay behind; then Judson approaches and 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 airliner engines power up and then flies again, leaving behind 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 then kills the couple with his last two bullets, and then awaits his grisly fate.



Although primarily filmed on a back lot, Five Came Back overcame some of the limitations of its low-budget. The fiery director insisted on a realistic jungle environment and had trees imported to flesh-out the jungle landscape on the sound stage. Unwanted attention directed toward Lucille Ball from lead actor Chester Morris,[3] and clashes between director Farrow, a contract player, and Ball,[N 1] these complications 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]

Capelis XC-12

Almost a character in its own right, the transport 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-seat, 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, while much of the metal skin was attached with P-K self-tapping screws rather than with rivets. These tended to vibrate loose, requiring tightening or replacing every few flights. After a 1938 emergency landing caused structural damage, promotional tours were quickly abandoned. The aircraft was then sold to RKO in 1939, and the transport ended its career as a non-flying movie prop, appearing in ground roles (in the 1942 Flying Tigers, starring John Wayne, and others) before reportedly being scrapped in 1943. Flying shots were of a XC-12 miniature, the aircraft itself was permanently grounded by the studio's insurance company.[6]

Principal photography was completed on April 26, 1939, coming in at an estimated $225,000.[3]


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."[3]

Home media[edit]

Five Came Back was released on DVD by the Warner Archive Collection[10] in June 2015. The transfer is from a high-quality 35mm element with superior audio.[11]



  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. ^ a b c d De la Hoz 2007, p. 189.
  4. ^ Los que volvieron at the Internet Movie Database
  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.
  10. ^ "Five Came Back". Warner Bros. Retrieved 2015-09-01. 
  11. ^ "A Few Words About Five Came Back DVD". Home Theatre Forum. Retrieved 2015-09-01. 


  • 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 978-0-933126-46-6.
  • 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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