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Back from Eternity may sound like some sort of sequel to From Here to Eternity (1953) based on its title, but John Farrow's 1956 aviation disaster thriller turned jungle survival drama (with a twist that anticipates The Flight of the Phoenix, 1965) is in fact a faithful remake of the director's own 1939 Five Came Back.
The Stagecoach-styled line-up of passengers and crew are introduced in an extended prologue that opens on an arrogant, sultry European blonde (Anita Ekberg) whose luxurious lifestyle is seriously curtailed by suspicious "passport problems." She's destined to board a rickety plane from a second-rate airline, bound for a "wide open town" on the Brazilian frontier called Boca Grande, along with a cast of troubled characters in varying degrees of crisis.
There's a doughy gangster (Jesse White) playing nursemaid to the young son of a mob boss on the run, an unsavory entrepreneur (Gene Barry) torn between his girl-next-door sweetheart (Phyllis Kirk) and a big business deal going down in Rio, aging college professor (Cameron Prud'Homme) on a research trip with his wife (Beulah Bondi), and finally Captain Bill Lonagan (Robert Ryan), a legendary pilot turned blithely cynical alcoholic who strolls up to the cabin just in time for the pre-flight check, much to the surprise of his all-American co-pilot (Keith Andes). Their final passengers climb aboard during a fueling stop on the air-travel version of a western way-station: a captured political criminal (Rod Steiger, with a German accent and tropical white linen suit) and a smugly arrogant bounty hunter (Fred Clark) taking him to an appointment with a firing squad.
By the last leg of the trip, the introductions are over and the plot can begin in earnest. The flight is hit by a storm that shorts out the radio and shuts down an engine, and the plane ditches in a tangled valley in an unexplored South American jungle. The co-pilot hatches a plan to repair the engine and fly out, a daring feat that can only be accomplished if Captain Lonagan pulls himself together, but of course there is a twist or two along the way. One of the twists involves a tribe of native headhunters, a bit of information courtesy of the most fascinatingly unsavory passenger small talk you'll ever hear in a fifties film. The pressures of the ordeal and the fear of the unknown reveal the best and the worst in the survivors.
The RKO production was Robert Ryan's final film for the studio, which had launched his career more than a dozen years earlier and helped turn the striking young actor into the sturdy leading man with a shadow of anger and pain behind his dark eyes. Ryan underplays the role of the jaded cynic, who hides his loss and painful past behind a breezy attitude and a weary smile, with a steely certainty. Without raising his voice or pushing the issue of leadership, he establishes authority and respect with calm reason and cool control.
Like Ryan's spiritually beaten pilot, Rod Steiger's philosophical revolutionary is haunted by his past, in his case the horrors of World War II, but his performance couldn't be more different. Where Ryan plays the old-fashioned movie hero of confident restraint, Steiger quietly steals scenes with his lilting Method approach, singing his lines against the grain with sudden starts and stops and dramatic changes in pitch and octave, like modern jazz erupting in the midst of a swing concert. He comes off as a disillusioned idealist turned compassionate Nietzschean activist, oddly charming but potentially threatening even as the acts of sacrifice he witnesses begin to restore his lapsed faith.
Swedish blonde bombshell Anita Ekberg, an actress of ample physical charm but limited range, was being groomed by RKO for Hollywood stardom when she was cast in the role of the decadent fallen woman who discovers redemption and her inner Earth-mother under the adversity of the jungle ordeal. She's fine in the role, but the filmmakers leave no illusions as to why she was cast when they toss in a contrived catfight that sends Ekberg into the water with nice-girl Phyllis Kirk, where they wrestle in clingy, wet garments.
The balance of the cast in Back from Eternity is a mix of familiar character actors and B-list performers. The most recognizable is Jesse White, the memorable character actor from Harvey (1950) but better known to the TV generation as the original Maytag Repairman, played against his image as an unlikely gangster. Fred Clark, who made a career out of stuffy authority figures and comic foils in films such as Sunset Blvd. (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), similarly enjoys a different kind of role as a cocky bounty hunter whose courage cracks under pressure.
The prolific Beulah Bondi, the Hollywood go-to gal for white-haired old mothers and dispensers of homespun wisdom, is perhaps best know for playing Jimmy Stewart's Ma in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Gene Barry starred in the 1953 The War of the Worlds but made his name in later years on TV as Bat Masterson and Amos Burke on Burke's Law. Phyllis Kirk was Nora Charles to Peter Lawford's Nick in the TV incarnation of The Thin Man. Stiff and stalwart Keith Andes never really broke out of secondary roles and B-movie leads and Cameron Prud'Homme spent more time on Broadway than in Hollywood.
Despite the star casting and RKO's new motto ("The busiest lot in Hollywood"), Back from Eternity was a low budget production for the financially strapped studio, which was hemorrhaging money under the reckless leadership of Howard Hughes. It shows in the largely studio-bound shoot and the obviously manufactured jungle, though what it lacks in naturalism it makes up for in dramatic imagery and an unexpectedly claustrophobic atmosphere. The brief special effects spectacle of the initial crash and the climactic scenes are memorable, thanks to striking miniature work, in an otherwise modest production. The film did little to change the struggling studio's fortunes, however, and Back from Eternity turned out to be one of its final releases before it collapsed for good.
Producer: John Farrow
Director: John Farrow
Screenplay: Richard Carroll, Jonathan Latimer
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Film Editing: Eda Warren
Art Direction: Gene Allen, Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Robert Ryan (Bill Lonagan), Anita Ekberg (Rena), Rod Steiger (Vasquel), Phyllis Kirk (Louise Melhorn), Keith Andes (Joe Brooks), Gene Barry (Jud Ellis).
BW-97m. Closed captioning.
by Sean Axmaker