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Exacting director John Farrow was working even before an unacknowledged contribution to 1936's Tarzan Escapes, where he met his spouse-to-be actress Maureen O'Sullivan. In the late 'forties he'd be one of the few directors to hold his own ground working for RKO's Howard Hughes, on the demanding films noir Where Danger Lives and His Kind of Woman. Both shows were conceived partially as vehicles for Hughes favorites Faith Domergue and Jane Russell.
A few years later Farrow would both direct and produce one more movie for Howard Hughes, a remake of his own RKO thriller Five Came Back, from 1939. The story of a motley group of air travelers downed in a tropical jungle is a combination Grand Hotel and morality play, and starred among other notables a very welcome Lucille Ball in a dramatic role. Farrow's remake Back from Eternity ups the ante with a higher profile cast including yet another new sex symbol being given a big Hollywood promotion, Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg. The film's realistic approach to mid-'fifties air travel in Central America perhaps explains how Eternity received the RKO green light. Batjac's The High and the Mighty had cleaned up a couple of seasons before, so why not launch another soap opera in the dangerous skies?
This version begins in a rather racy mode. European babe sans passport Rena (Anita Ekberg) has been skating on her looks and the kindness of various gentlemen since the end of the war. She's presently the consort of Paul, a Vegas high roller (Tristram Coffin of King of the Rocket Men serial fame). Paul has a harem of cuties at his beck and call. When Rena burns through too many of Paul's chips at the roulette wheel, Paul ditches her by sending her to what sounds very much like a 'house of ill repute' somewhere in Latin America.
After that very Hughes-ish opening Back from Eternity reverts to more or less the same story as written in 1939 by Richard Carroll and screenwriters Jerome Cady, Dalton Trumbo and ... wait for it ... Nathanael West. Most every character hides a juicy back story. Tough pilot Bill Lonagan (Robert Ryan) has an attitude problem and a reputation for drinking but is fully capable of doing his job. One of the few people to understand him is the plane's attractive stewardess, Maria Alvarez (Adele Mara of Curse of the Faceless Man). Advertising man Jud Ellis (Gene Barry) is taking his fiancée Louise Melhorn (Phillis Kirk) to be married in exotic South America. Professor Henry Spangler and his wife Martha (Cameron Prud'Homme & Beulah Bondi) are looking for a peaceful place to retire. Low-level gangster Pete Bostwick (Jesse White) is accompanying little Tommy Malone (Jon Provost), the son of his racketeer boss Thomas Malone (Tol Avery). Pete 'adopts' the boy when news comes that his father has been murdered. The plane hops between airports on its way south and is delayed for a few hours in one country to wait for a special passenger. Slimy state security cop Crimp (Fred Clark) is transporting captured anarchist-assassin Vasquel (Rod Steiger) to keep a date with the hangman.
A terrible storm brings the plane down way off course in the middle of an impenetrable jungle. With no chance of walking out and surrounded by a tribe of savage headhunters, the group tries to cohere and carry out a plan to repair the plane and fly to freedom. Crimp and Jud prove to be selfish and cowardly while the gunman Pete and the killer Vasquel cooperate with their fellow castaways. In light of Jud's craven attitude Louise's affections gravitate toward the levelheaded co-pilot Joe Brooks (Keith Andes). The Spanglers accept the grim situation as positively as they can: the natives could wipe them out at any moment. Shielded from the harsh reality little Tommy treats the experience as a great adventure. Both Rena and Louise take a motherly interest in the boy, but Bill isn't particularly trusting of women and initially feels sure that Rena is just working another angle. The stakes for survival become crucial when Bill and Joe discover that a weight restriction will only let five people ride out in the repaired airplane. How can they choose those who will survive, as the headhunters close in?
Back from Eternity's somewhat pat, virtually unbreakable suspense plot is updated with a more practical outlook and less of an emphasis on heavenly salvation. It's not difficult to guess that villain or two will conveniently eliminate themselves, and that other castaways will offer up noble sacrifices. The show still keeps us guessing as to what exactly will become of everybody, and how the losers will take the bad news.
Most of the characterizations are no strain on the actors. Robert Ryan gives the pilot plenty of gravity, but the part isn't written for depth. Gene Barry is a convincing jerk, plain and simple. Fred Clark does pretty well as a South American cutthroat with a badge. He'd soon be playing comedy roles almost exclusively. Beulah Bondi dials back the 'sweet old lady' act enough to let us see her Mrs. Spangler as a dignified senior citizen, not a relic. Little Jon Provost would the next year win the coveted role of Timmy on TV's Lassie. He's a real prize, one of the few child actors that can best little Ronny Howard for believable sincerity.
Miss Ekberg is of course an eye catcher. Her costumes aren't quite as provocative as the images in the ad art but the movie does contrive a catfight between Ekberg and Ms. Kirk, probably to put more oomph into the trailer. Ekberg is no more expressive than in her other glamour showcase roles, so it is quite fortunate that Federico Fellini enlarged her sexuality to transcendent levels in La dolce vita and Boccaccio '70. Her characters in those pictures seem to exist in a constant state of near-orgasm.
The acting laurels fall to Rod Steiger, who at this time would have liked to establish himself as a leading man after his Best Supporting Actor nomination for On the Waterfront. Vasquel is an unusual assassin considering that he professes no political ideology yet is sufficiently committed to a cause to try to kill a head of state. Steiger plays the guy as a subdued common crook and downplays his somewhat melodramatic actions. With the no-nonsense John Farrow helping, of course, Back from Eternity avoids laughable moments.
The happiest surprise is Jesse White, who played a few serious gangsters but was mostly used in comedy roles. Casting comedians in dramatic parts often works well, and White is terrific as a goon who finds a personal reward in taking responsibility for little Tommy. When Robert Ryan's Bill discovers that Pete Bostwick has a gun we expect him to confiscate it. Bill instead assigns Pete to hunt some game. Jesse White registers surprise at being placed in a position of trust. It's a fine characterization.
Howard Hughes fills the flying scenes with some very handsome aerial shots, but the bulk of the picture relies on miniatures and an elaborate jungle set created on a sound stage. Back from Eternity doesn't look cheap, probably due to the uncompromising John Farrow. In 1956 RKO was in a final burst of production activity before the inevitable end. Almost all of its 1958 films, many of them foreign productions, ended up being handed off to other studios for distribution.
Interestingly, in a film populated with crooks, killers and lethal headhunting savages, the most shocking bit of violence is directed at a woman. As it is a spoiler, I'll address this in a footnote.
Don't blink and you'll catch a glimpse of an unbelievably young Barbara Eden, as a journalism student interviewing one of the airplane passengers.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Back from Eternity is a really good enhanced widescreen encoding of this addictively watchable jungle thriller. The B&W image looks great at all times, what with the balanced lighting in this soundstage jungle environment. Franz Waxman's music score is a big plus as well.
The trailer included takes the same tack as the poster art reproduced on the WAC packaging: "Ooh that Ekberg!" Even with the counter-image of an airplane below, lonely guys queueing up for this thriller would possibly be expecting one o' them foreign-type sex movies they'd been reading about. Back from Eternity gets high marks among Airliner-in-Peril epics.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Back from Eternity rates:
1. SPOILER: The unlucky stewardess is swept out of the plane's cabin in mid-flight thanks to the act of a cowardly passenger. The horrible event isn't discussed again, nor is poor Maria mourned or even mentioned later in the movie. Several of the classics of the 'airliner in peril' subgenre depict sacrifices made by or violence perpetrated on attractive stewardesses. That suggests a theory based on the assumption that male airline passengers routinely fantasize erotic thoughts about female cabin attendants: in these movies, violent action fills the gap left by sexual daydreaming. More misogyny in dramatic entertainment -- if you can't ____ these professional women, make them suffer some horrible fate instead. That'll teach 'em.
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T'was Ever Thus.