I watched Sole Survivor (1970). This was a US TV Movie that was shown by the BBC a few times in the 70s and 80s.
We start with sad, mournful music whilst a sun rises over the wreck of a B-25 bomber in the desert.
As the credits go past, we scan around the wreck, and see signs it was in combat. There are also moments of flashing quickly between the gun ports with a soundtrack of the crew talking during their last mission.
Once the introduction is over, we see there are figures around the crash site, starting with the waist gunner Gant, with his harmonica.
He calls to Captain MacDonald (“Mac”), with his baseball kit, that it’s time for reveille. Mac calls the rest of the crew to attention.
But the turret gunner Tony isn’t keen right now.
TONY: I’m having a dream.
MAC: We don’t dream.
He is reminded of the rules they have followed for 17 years, which were voted on: “until we’re found, baseball 3 times a day”.
As Tony tries to walk off, they remind him also that that idea doesn’t work, they found out that you just circle around somehow and end up back at the crash site.
As so he finally falls in and the boys start the first baseball game of the day… but then they see a modern plane flying low, and finally get excited that their wreck has been found. They’re going home.
In case the penny hasn’t dropped yet: these men are all dead. They are the ghosts of the crew of the Home Run, trapped at this site in the desert in the 17 years since their mission ended in disaster.
Points of detail:
- It is stated that the target of the mission was Messina, and the flight set out from Benghazi. That would fit with it being part of the invasion of Sicily in mid 1943, and so we are now in 1943 + 17 = 1960. That makes sense of the moment when one of the boys is overhearing baseball news on the radio brought by the investigators and is confused that “Brooklyn is now in Los Angeles” – a reference to the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957. The crew are also very impressed to see a working helicopter, since only simple experimental versions existed in their time.
- These boys can hear and see things in the material world and can also move things about, since they work to put back all the items on the plane to get it as near as possible to its working condition. They think this will make it more likely to be taken back to the US.
- Four of the five survivors died out in the desert, including Gant. Tony came back to the plane but was killed when the tail section broke off and crushed him. This is why he wants the others to help move the wreck so that his remains can be found and identified and taken back.
- Since Gant always takes his harmonica with him everywhere, he must have taken it with him when he went out in the desert. Yet he has it now. So, when the dead souls got brought back to the wreck, the mysterious force that keeps them here must have given him that item as well. Presumably ball player Mac left his bat and gloves back at the plane anyway.
- Every body is in the same physical state they were at the time of death, and Brandy has a bandage on his leg from the bullet wound received during the air battle. They do not need to eat and the desert rations they left on the plane are found by the investigators. It is not exactly clear if they sleep, or come in and out of existence at sunrise/sundown, although they are present at night when the investigators are around.
- It is not clear how they have kept track of the 17 years, since the crew log was with Mac and the others when they died out in the desert and they can’t now retrieve it. There must have been a moment when they all materialised together here and realised what their new state was.
News of the discovery gets back to the USAF, and crash investigators Gronke and Devlin note that the serial number on the tail match the plane reported lost by the 6th crew member – navigator Russell Hamner, who is now a 1-star general and a big deal at the Pentagon. He agrees to adjust his schedule – off to see some missiles in Turkey – to go along and look at the wreck.
Having got the plane back in to as near to exact condition when they bailed out of it, the boys stand to attention as the investigating team approach. Despite everything we’ve been told so far, they don’t know what will happen next and there is a tension around this moment.
Mac gives a salute, and it looks like Devlin might be responding…
…but he’s just adjusting his cap, and staring straight through them.
This film does not use any special effects, and if you watch the next moments carefully, Devlin does take a slightly curved route to go around the invisible men he ought to walk straight through… but never mind, most of the time the ghost crew are supplying a critical chorus to the great men trying to work out the story for an official report.
The true story is that the Home Run was damaged after coming under attack and so had to quit its squadron and head back home. Hamner ought to have been able to plot a route to Benghazi like his captain ordered him to, but he wanted to crash safely on nearby land (that would have led to them becoming POWs, which is why Mac wouldn’t consider it). So he simply bailed out at sea, was found and regarded as a hero. Everyone accepted his story that the others must have been lost at sea when they bailed as well (the crew themselves always assumed he died when his parachute failed to deploy, as they couldn’t see what he was doing very well). When they did bail over the desert they took the inflatable dinghy as they thought they were still over water, or at least close by the coast. Hamner seems to have had some impressive service subsequently (he talks about fighting MiGs, so he must have been active in Korea as well).
Gronke is rather keen to tidy everything up and not make trouble for senior command – “I don’t want to make waves in the Libyan desert” – also a wry allusion to fact mentioned by the discoverers, that the desert looks like a sea surface at night, which is how the remaining crew got lost off course instead of finding their way to Benghazi as Hamner half-expected. Any doubts that William Shatner can act should be dispelled here. Although he’s slightly too young-looking for the near-retirement age he’s supposed to be, he does a good job of the body language of a conformist bureaucrat irritated by the too-keen Devlin causing embarrassment. He gets a little speech about how the Air Force gave him an identity and a role that he never had and that’s how he’s happy to put up with the Hamners and other brass hats. He finds his way to the right side in the end, of course.
All these men have a story about what the Air Force meant to them, who they were before the War and what they might have been or become. Tony was a poor Italian New York boy; Mac was a wannabe baseball player who was moving up the leagues before he enlisted; Brandy was a WASP twitching away from his family expectations by going in to a different service instead of the Army like his ancestors buried in Arlington. Devlin also has a history of mistakes (that’s how he’s ended up in this admin job) which is why he can smell the truth about Hamner. The price of his success will be to destroy the spirit of an old man who’s found a way to live with his lies until now.
Although they’ve had 17 years to think about it, these boys don’t seem too concerned about the metaphysical dimensions of the story – there’s a reference to “losing faith in the Lord” if they are finally cheated of justice, but they are mainly concerned with being back in the land of their families, even if they admit they probably haven’t missed them. They are puzzled to find out whether or not they will be prevented from “intervening” in the investigation, but we never get a detailed recap of how their spectral life commenced. The biggest point of contention is Tony’s demand that they try to move the tail so his dog-tags can be dug up as well. There is an ambiguous ending, with Devlin driving back for one more look at the site, that is open to the possibility that he still gets found.
The material world inspiration for the story was the discovery of the wreck of the Lady Be Good, which was a larger B-24, not a B-25. Sole Survivor made a big impression on me when I saw it on TV around 1980 or thereabouts. It would have been around that time that I saw Midlands Today do a report about ghost sightings at an old RAF base. This ended with footage of the reporter sat in the cockpit of an old bomber in a museum, speaking whilst being filmed from the camera team down on the ground nearby. A few days there was a follow-up in which the footage was watched again in the studio, because some viewers had claimed they could see something moving in the background in the cockpit. They were correct, but nothing clear to see. Surprisingly, none of this can be found on YouTube or anywhere else on the internet nowadays.