Sole Survivor (1970)

Originally broadcast as a TV movie in 1970, Sole Survivor became one of those legendary, unavailable titles about which people would talk obsessively over the years, recounting the plot from distant memory so that everyone recalled a different version. Some people remember it as a straight World War Two thriller about the rescue of a stranded flight crew; others posit alternative endings; still more swap the actors into different roles, remembering performances that simply do not exist. This fascinating process is almost a thematic extension of the film, a pleasing serendipity that is perhaps more interesting than the production itself. That's not to denigrate the film, which is a remarkable piece of work.

In the Libyan desert the ghosts of an American flight crew are earthbound to the wreckage of their crashed bomber. They cannot leave the wreck and so idly await discovery, which they presume will mean release. After 17 long years their bomber is indeed discovered, and the US Air Force dispatches Vince Edwards and William Shatner as a panel to investigate the crash, collect the dog-tags, and close the books on the incident. Accompanying them is Richard Basehart, the sole surviving crew member from the crashed bomber, whose account of the flight, and of his own survival, is now called into question - he claims the Captain gave the order to bail out, and he obeyed this order. He has stuck with this story for 17 years, and it appears to be backed up by the fact that no bodies are found at the site of the crash - but if the crew bailed out with Basehart, how did the bomber coast for 600 miles inland? And just what did happen to the rest of the crew, none of whom were recovered? What follows could be described as trial by sunlight and shadow, as the scorching desert heat has Basehart turn to liquor, giving the ghosts a maudlin presence which is entered into evidence against him.

Sole Survivor is often remembered as a Movie of the Week, though I think it came slightly before that franchise took hold. It is possible that the high quality of the film partly inspired the TV movie phenomenon of the 1970s, and though not many matched its artistry, a few - Murder by Natural Causes, Fear on Trial, Red Alert, and others - were powerful enough to create their own living, and dying, memory.


  1. I'd never heard of this before, and enjoyed it greatly: unpredictable, nicely scripted and not obtrusively moralistic, none of which are virtues one associates easily with TV films. No cheesy effects, either: the living men who can't see the ghosts don't walk through them, but simply don't ever get face to face with them, which resonates rather nicely with the theme.

    I see that the writer, the superbly-named Guerdon Trueblood, later wrote The Savage Bees, which I recall seeing when I was about fifteen and being favourably surprised (I think I'd recently seen Clive James sneering at The Swarm and its ilk, and was expecting a chance to feel superior).

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it - it was very nicely done. I'm working my way through a number of these TV movies at the moment - the latest being The Tenth Level, which I'd also recommend (there's a copy at youtube, though it appears to be third or fourth generation VHS). I don't think I've watched The Savage Bees, but anything tagged Guerdon Trueblood must be worth a look. Enjoyed The Swarm immensely. :]