Sole Survivor (1970)


Sole Survivor is a CBS Friday Night Movie starring Richard Basehart, William Shatner, and Vince Edwards. The film, written by screenwriter Guerdon Trueblood and directed by Paul Stanley, was first aired on television in 1970. While the film follows the fate of the 6-man crew of a B-25 Mitchell bomber, it is loosely based on the 1958 discovery of the B-24 Liberator bomber Lady Be Good in the Libyan desert. The Lady Be Good and her 9-man crew had disappeared without a trace in 1943, following its first and only combat mission in World War II. The bodies of 8 of the crew were found in 1960.

While returning from a World War II bombing mission, a United States Army Air Forces B-25 Mitchell bomber sustains damage from action with German fighters. Without any order to abandon the aircraft, the navigator, Lieutenant Hamner, panics and bails out. The aircraft, now lost due to having no navigator, and the remaining crew overfly their base and continue on for another 300 miles before eventually crash landing in the Libyan desert.

The five remaining crewmen, believing they are still over water, bail out and survive their parachute landings, although one of the crew, Brandy is badly injured. Needing water and desert survival gear, one of the group, Tony, walks to the plane following the heading the plane would have flown, hoping to find the plane and bring back much needed supplies. Unfortunately, when he arrives at the bomber and crawls underneath the tail to escape the sun, the tail, which has been hanging precariously, falls on him, crushing him instantly. The remaining crewmen ultimately die of exposure after several days beneath the relentless African sun. Their ghosts make their way back to the wreckage of the aircraft where they spend the next seventeen years in a type of limbo state, playing baseball and longing for repatriation back to their home country, which can occur only if their bodies are recovered.

The plane is finally spotted by an oil surveying aircraft, which reports the discovery back to the United States Air Force. Seeing the survey plane and realizing that they are soon about to “have visitors”, the five remaining crew members’ ghosts begin returning the plane to its state at the time of the crash, putting objects and artifacts in their original positions in hopes of convincing their visitors they had stayed with the plane and hopefully inducing them to search for their bodies.

Having survived the crash, Hamner, who had remained in the military after the war and is now an Air Force brigadier general, is asked by investigators Lieutenant Colonel Josef Gronke and Major Michael Devlin to accompany their team to the remains of the B-25. Fearing disciplinary action and the end of his military career should the truth of his cowardice be found out, he tries to convince Gronke and Devlin that the entire crew bailed out over the Mediterranean with him and that the pilotless plane somehow flew on by itself. Although the discovery of crewman Gant’s harmonica indicates that the crew did not bail out over the sea, the bodies are nowhere to be seen.

Unable to find evidence to the contrary, the team has no choice but to accept Hamner’s explanation, though Devlin is convinced that Hamner is lying, knowing first hand the guilt over his own bad judgment when he crashed his military plane in California, killing some school children. Devlin confronts an inebriated Hamner, who finally admits his actions, though he points out (as seen in flashback) that pilot Mac had turned down navigator Hamner’s heading to a Nazi occupied landing point, and then believed that the others had probably (and “should have”) bailed out rather than flying on in the damaged plane.

When Devlin returns to his tent the ghosts of the crew make their appearance to Hamner, leading him to flee in panic across the desert in a jeep. Followed by the investigators, the chase ends with them arriving at the scene of an abandoned life raft (the crew having abandoned the plane in the darkness and convinced they were still over open water), revealing to the entire team what Hamner has already admitted to Devlin.

The heading to the life raft and an estimate of how long they could survive on foot helps the team find the missing bodies. The ghost of each crewman vanishes as their bodies are recovered, their spirits accompanying their remains back to the United States – the exception being Tony, who had died under the tail of the airplane. The film ends with a solitary Tony at the plane, but also a glimmer of hope as a diary is found near Mac’s body, mentioning Tony’s return to the plane. The team decides to make one final detailed search at the crash site.