We still live in a world with a class system and there are other social devices in place that make sure people go to and stay in specific jobs or modes of living throughout their lives, usually for generations. But the American idea is that everyone's created equal and everyone is supposed to have the same shot at doing whatever they want. This is why it's intriguing to imagine a situation where calamities beyond human control intervene to jumble the order of things, a situation where past experiences and social positions don't become irrelevant but suddenly take on new value and less artificial meaning. This was a fantasy so nice director John Farrow shot it twice, first in 1939 as Five Came Back and then in 1956 he remade his own film under the title Back from Eternity. They're both good movies, Back from Eternity significantly better in a way that feels very much like a final to the first film's rough draft.
A U.S. passenger plane operating in Latin America, piloted by a hard bitten, world weary, but exceptionally skilled man named Bill and his younger, exuberant co-pilot Joe, take on a diverse assortment of passengers. A young, soon to be married couple, an elderly professor and his wife, a gangster escorting his boss's little boy, a murderer under custody of a bounty hunting detective, and a bombshell drifter, on her way to a job that amounts to a less lucrative and more dangerous form of prostitution than the ways she'd been selling herself to men throughout her life previously. In addition, the plane has one attendant, a steward in the original film, a stewardess in the remake. A sudden, terrible storm forces the plane to crash land somewhere in South American wilderness and, of these twelve people, as the first film's title informs us, only five come back.
The original film's screenplay was partly written by Dalton Trumbo, the subject of an upcoming film starring Bryan Cranston as Trumbo. For all we know, he may have contributed to the remake, since this was during the time he was blacklisted and he wouldn't have been officially credited if he did contribute. It's intriguing to think about him working on the film because of its radical political nature. The story doesn't so much argue for Communism or Capitalism, although once the crew and passengers have formed their makeshift community it would probably be best described as Communist. It's more about the inherent value of human beings and the idea that their potential might be inhibited by the way society functions.
In the little world created by the survivors, the gangster is a useful contributor because he's a good shot and can hunt. The detective becomes a burden and criminal, the idealistic young couple find themselves at odds as the would-be groom becomes a destructive drunk. Most significant off all is the murderer who establishes a friendship with the professor and becomes valuable not because he seems to reform in this environment, though he claims to have, but because he's a murderer.
The second film improves on the first in many ways, though it retains quite a lot of the dialogue. Useless scenes and side plots are excised, like the co-pilot buying lunch for the young couple and a scene of the murderer stealing a gun in the police office. Bill loses his bizarre backstory of being a circus pilot whose wife dies while performing on the wing of his plane (I actually kind of liked this weird bit of information but I can see how Farrow might have thought it distracting). The main difference was in casting--there's a sense in both cases Farrow couldn't have the highest calibre talent in all the roles so the best casting had to be deployed strategically. I think the first film, once it was finished, revealed to Farrow the characters for whom a good performance was really necessary and the ones for whom it would not be as crucial. The best actors in the original film are Lucille Ball and John Carradine as the bombshell and the detective, respectively. The best actors in the remake are Robert Ryan and Rod Steiger as the pilot and the murderer, respectively.
Anita Ekberg takes over the bombshell role. Ekberg was kind of the Arnold Schwarzenegger of bombshells. The extreme quality of her physical presence not only made up for her lack of ability as a performer it enhanced her intrigue and sometimes made her expressions of emotion more charming and effective. Lucille Ball may have been a better actress, but Ekberg better fills out what this role requires, if you take my meaning.
One might reasonably question whether an actor of Robert Ryan's ability was necessary for Bill but it's nice having him along in any case. The most important factor was the casting of Rod Steiger as the murderer, played adequately but unremarkably by Joseph Calleia in the original.
Steiger immediately gives humanity to the man. His conversation about head shrinking with the professor when the murderer is introduced is still eerie and gives us the feeling he's a dangerous man--and that the professor's intellectual curiosity might outstrip his ethics--but with Steiger there's a genuine human warmth to it, a real interest in the subject rather than a cold, cartoon villain sadism to it.
The second film is also enhanced by additional backstory being given to the gangster and a better handling of the way he hears that his boss has been killed, leaving the little boy without parents. The bombshell, originally Peggy but renamed Rena, is also given more story--the film opens with her being savagely treated by the previous man who'd been keeping her. He pushes her down and tears off her jewellery. I was amazed the first film got past the Hays office, Back from Eternity seemed transgressive even for a film from a time when the influence of the Hays office was becoming much weaker.
The remake also adds a wet cat fight which may not have been strictly necessary but I'm not complaining. Any excuse to get Anita Ekberg wet . . .