Saturday, June 23, 2018

Five Came Back

John Farrow’s Five Came Back (1939) is a black and white thriller about an airplane crash in the middle of the dense Amazon jungle. Though it is remembered as a ‘B’ production, it is probably the first movie of its kind and inspired later airplane disaster movies from the remake Back from Eternity (1956) to the Airport series in the 1970s. Travelling from Los Angeles to Panama City, a commercial flight with twelve people on board suffers an engine problem because of a tropical storm and ends up landing in the Amazon rainforest. In the wait to get rescued or repairing the damaged plane to fly back home, the passengers will rediscover themselves after living and cooperating with each other to survive for twenty-four days.

The movie starts with a quick introduction of the characters in the airport before they get on the plane. From then we know that every passenger has a different motivation to travel to Latin America, but they will agree on the reasons to come back.

Judson (Patric Knowles) and Alice (Wendy Berrie) are a rich couple going to Panama to get married against their family wishes. An old couple, Prof. Henry Spengler (C. Aubrey Smith) and his wife look for a tropical adventure that can revive their love. Pete (Allen Jenkins) is a gangster’s right hand escaping with his child away from American justice. The seventh person is Peggy Nolan (Lucille Ball) who is trying to forget about her failing romances in a place where can start over. And finally, extradited to his home country by the US government for having killed a high-rank politician, Vasquez (Joseph Calleia), a Panamanian anarchist travels to face justice accompanied by Crimp (John Carradine) as his custodian. Of course, we also see the pilots Bill and Joe (Chester Morris and Kent Taylor) and the flight steward Larry, but it is not after the crash that we get to know more about them.

First the plane lands in Mexico for a layover. As soon as the passages know they have crossed the border, the general assumption is that the food will be too spicy and the people Spanish speakers. Ironically, however, the America versus Latin America contrasting imagination fades away when the group realizes that the airport restaurant is run by a Chinese-American chef who speaks English.

The characters, dialogues and landscapes are used by Farrow to portray the different realities that one might experience when travelling to Latin America. The Mexican airport, for example, is the Latin America for the tourists, made by Americans and for Americans. Such is the influence that the passengers do not have to worry about speaking a foreign language or eating foreign food. That is a controlled and secure place, but then we are taken to a totally different Latin America after the crash. The Amazon jungle is nothing like what everyone was expecting when arriving in Panama City. The closest city can only be reached by flying out; the jungle provides enough food and water to survive, but the Amazon Indians will soon come to torture or kill everyone.

The Amazon jungle in its anarchical and isolated state forces the group to commit to an organization based on reason, but also power, similar to Hobbes’ hypothetical state of nature. The Amazon jungle then is the place where theories of pre-civilization stage, where political fiction can be experimented with. To survive, Hobbes argued, a leader with coercive power is designated to protect the whole from the fear of brutish dead. Farrows movie likewise is about the survival of the whole, and the fear of being attacked by an uncivilized tribe motives them to chose one leader, and the power that leader has for ensuring control is a gun. Whoever has the gun, has power too. This unexpected experience and the designation of roles (women cook and take care of the child, men repair the plain, look for resources, and protect the settlement) profoundly transforms each person’s perception of life. The most important change is produced in the anarchical criminal mind of Vasquez. Seeing that the group has been able to organize itself, Vasquez accepts that figures of authority for politics and justice are necessary and that the problem is corrupt people and anarchists like him.

After two people get killed by the Indians, there is no other option than trying to fly out or die in their hands, but only 5 people can get on the plane. Vasquez takes the gun and thus the power to decide. He kills the rich Judson who became an alcoholic and offered money to get a spot. The kid, the two young women and the two pilots who are now romantically involved go back, and the old couple who revived their love and got to explore Latin America decide to stay with Vasquez.

Latin America is shown with its many faces. It is a safe touristic destination highly influenced by the United States, in language and in food, as well as in social and political practices; it is the “civilized” Latin America. But in places beyond the reach of American influence, such as the Amazon forest, it remains an exotic, uncivilized, and dangerous place, like in pre-colonial periods. This second face of Latin America is fictional. Indeed, Farrow had constructed the jungle in a studio with plants brought from the jungle but arranged as his imagination about the place took him. Remote places or societies restricted from American culture, technology, language, politics, etc., are stigmatized, but at the same time, that “untouched” nature of the jungle is romanticized since it becomes an opportunity to find the real self and experience, from zero, the beginning of civilizations when governed by reason.

Moreover, the movie shows an implicit support for gun use as a mean to enforce justice. So the question is: had the gun not been present, would the five survivors still be able to get on the plane? Perhaps without it, the corrupt and alcoholic Judson could have taken one of the pilots’ seats or left a woman behind. The gun is as well the door for a better death for those staying than being tortured by savage Indians. And the Indians, aren’t they also beings of reason which make them able to create norms and rules in the same “state of nature” circumstance? Certainly, in this movie the answer might be negative since Farrow shows only the fear those Indians provoke, we do not see their faces, but we know they are coming to hunt foreigners.