Nine passengers board a commercial flight from Los Angeles to Panama City: wealthy Judson Ellis (Patric Knowles) and Alice Melhorne (Wendy Barrie), eloping because their parents disapprove; an elderly couple, Professor Henry Spengler (C. Aubrey Smith) and his wife Martha (Elisabeth Risdon); Tommy Mulvaney (Casey Johnson), the young son of a gangster, and his escort, gunman Pete (Allen Jenkins); Peggy Nolan (Lucille Ball), a woman with a shady past; and Vasquez (Joseph Calleia), an anarchist being extradited and facing a death sentence for killing a high-ranking politician, and his deportation guard, Crimp (John Carradine), who expects a $5,000 ($86,100 today) reward for delivering him. The crew comprises pilot Bill (Chester Morris), co-pilot Joe Brooks (Kent Taylor), and steward Larry (Dick Hogan).
On their way to Panama, a fierce nighttime storm buffets their airliner, The Silver Queen. A gas cylinder is shaken loose and knocks a door open; steward Larry attempts to close it, but falls to his death. An engine fails and the pilots are forced to crash-land in jungle terrain. In the morning the professor recognizes plants of the Amazon rainforest: the aircraft has been blown far south of where rescuers will search; the nearest civilization is across the mountains. But there is water, and enough fruit and game for everyone to live on.
Weeks go by while Bill and Joe struggle to repair the damaged airliner, while the others clear a runway and lighten the aircraft by removing all unnecessary weight. The experience changes everyone. The Spenglers rediscover their love for each other. Bill warms to an appreciative Peggy, although she tells him about her sordid past. Judson falls apart, staying drunk much of the time, while Alice toughens up and begins to feel attracted to Joe. The biggest change is to Vasquez. Seeing how well most of the group have coped with their situation, he reconsiders his radical beliefs.
On the 23rd day, Crimp disappears; Tommy eventually discovers his dead body. When Peggy and Pete go looking for Tommy, he leads them to Crimp's body, which has a poison dart stuck in it. Pete orders Peggy to take Tommy to safety while he covers their retreat, but he is quickly killed by unseen natives.
The remaining survivors board the now-repaired airliner, but as the engines turn over, an oil leak develops. Bill and Joe patch it, but realize that their repair will fail some time after takeoff, leaving only one running engine. As a result, the aircraft can only carry four adults and Tommy across the mountains. As everyone tries to decide how to choose who must stay behind, Vasquez suddenly grabs a pistol and announces that, since he is doomed no matter what, he is the only one without bias and will make the decision. While the leak repairs are being made, he is approached by Professor Spengler, who says that he and his wife have lived their lives and should stay; then Judson tries to bribe Vasquez by offering to pay for a top lawyer.
When the aircraft is ready, Vasquez announces that both pilots and both of the younger women will go along with Tommy. Judson attacks, and Vasquez shoots him dead. The airliner takes off, leaving behind Vasquez and the Spenglers. As the natives approach, Professor Spengler quietly informs Vasquez that they must not be taken alive, as they will be tortured. Vasquez lies to him, telling him that there are three bullets left. He kills the couple with his last two bullets, and then awaits his grisly fate.
Casey Johnson is the last surviving cast member.
Although primarily filmed on a back lot, Five Came Back overcame some of the limitations of its low-budget. The fiery director insisted on a realistic jungle environment and had trees imported to flesh out the jungle landscape on the sound stage. Unwanted attention directed toward Lucille Ball by lead actor Chester Morris and clashes between director Farrow, a contract player, and Ball made for a tense set. When two Black Widow spiders dropped out of a tree onto Ball's head, she was extremely upset and left the set, screaming.
The transport aircraft used in Five Came Back is the Capelis XC-12, built in 1933 by Capelis Safety Airplane Corporation of California, although an altogether different airplane, a Lockheed Electra, is seen in one takeoff sequence. The aircraft was a 12-seat, low-wing cabin monoplane with two 525 hp Wright Cyclone engines.
The Capelis XC-12 featured an unusual construction method with the main wing spar bolted together, and much of the metal skin attached with P-K self-tapping screws rather than rivets. These tended to vibrate loose, requiring tightening or replacing screws every few flights. After a 1938 emergency landing caused structural damage, promotional tours were quickly abandoned. The aircraft was then sold to RKO in 1939. The transport ended its career as a non-flying film prop, appearing in ground roles (in the 1942 Flying Tigers, starring John Wayne, and in other features) before reportedly being scrapped around 1950, after having slowly become a back lot relic. Flying shots in Five Came Back used a XC-12 miniature, due to the aircraft having been permanently grounded by the studio's insurance company.
Principal photography was completed on April 26, 1939, coming in at an estimated $225,000.
In his July 5, 1939 review in The New York Times, Frank Nugent praised Five Came Back as "a rousing salute to melodrama, suspenseful as a slow-burning fuse, exciting as a pinwheel, spectacularly explosive as an aerial bomb."
"Out of the enterprise comes a fine piece of work by Joseph Calleia," wrote critic Wood Soanes, "an actor who was taken from the stage after several excellent characterizations and who has been given little chance to show his stuff on the screen. Because Five Came Back was obviously not viewed as an epic while in the making and was, consequently, not subjected to high-powered studio supervision, Calleia managed to get in a splendid character study."
Richard B. Jewell, Professor of American Film at the University of Southern California, wrote in The RKO Story, "In 1939, John Farrow directed one of the most exciting 'B' films in company history. Since the title indicated how many would make it out alive, audience members were kept on the edge of their seats." Jewell describes the film as "one of the very best program melodramas in RKO history."
Five Came Back was also notable for lively "street smart" dialogue attributed to its team of distinguished screenwriters. Both Cady and West were later to be nominated for Academy Awards in future projects, while Trumbo became one of Hollywood's most acclaimed screenwriters with two Oscars to his credit.
Even though the studio had planned it as a standard "B" movie, Five Came Back became a surprise hit that "quickly amassed an enthusiastic word-of-mouth campaign among moviegoers." The film, which cost $225,000 to make, eventually earned $262,000 in profits and collected substantial critical praise."
"The film is widely viewed as having paved the way for disaster epics of the '70s, like Airport and Poseidon Adventure."
Five Came Back was released on DVD by the Warner Archive Collection in June 2015. The transfer is from a high-quality 35mm element with superior audio.