One of the things one did while studying French, apart from giggling over Asterix and Tintin comic books (in French), was to read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1931 novel Vol de Nuit (also in French). Even with a rudimentary knowledge of French, there was no denying the poetry and poignancy of the pilot Fabien’s last moments.
It was Fabien and his doomed flight that came to mind while watching Freddie’s (Ben Radcliffe) desperate flight home. The Shepherd, based on a Frederick Forsyth 1975 novella of the same name, opens on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in 1957 in the RAF base at Celle in Germany (the way the carol changes from English to German was way cool). As the snow falls softly from the bitterly cold night lit by a gazillion twinkling stars, the pilots indulge in a jolly snowball fight.
It is the snowball fight that gives Freddie a chance to go home for Christmas. Just as he is wishing his mum and getting ready to call his girl, Lizzie (Millie Kent), to tell her that he will not be coming home for Christmas, he notices a pilot with his arm in a sling—injured in the snowball fight. Though Freddie has just got his night flight wings, he persuades his commander to assign him the one-hour flight from Celle to Lakenheath in Suffolk.
The Shepherd (English)
Director: Iain Softley
Cast: Ben Radcliffe, John Travolta
Run-time: 39 minutes
Storyline: A pilot is stranded over the North Sea and has given up hope of getting home when a saviour appears
Excited about being home for Christmas, Freddie gets into his De Havilland Vampire and takes off. Flying over the North Sea, he realises his compass is not working. When he tries to contact the tower for assistance, he finds out communications are down and then the fog rolls in. He flies in triangles to signal distress to no avail, till out of the mist and fog, appears an old, WWII Mosquito fighter-bomber.
The Mosquito pilot, Johnny Kavanagh (John Travolta), guides Freddie to land at RAF Minton. The Air Force station has not been operational since World War II. At the deserted Air Force station, manned by only a steward, who was Kavanagh’s batman, Freddie finds out eerie details about the brave Canadian pilot who would refuel and fly out immediately after the squadron had landed, to help guide crippled bombers to safety during World War II.
Forsyth, an RAF pilot, wrote The Shepherd as a Christmas gift for his wife Carrie and the celluloid adaptation is an enchanting gift for us 50 years later. Produced by Alfonso Cuarón, The Shepherd is bathed in a glittery god light that makes you believe anything can happen. Cinematographer John Mathieson, a Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) regular, had also worked with director Iain Softley on the 2001 science-fiction film K-PAX. Mathieson has filled the frames with mystery and majesty, giving a Commando Comics look to the proceedings. The short film is long on thrilling visuals and warmth, making for a wonderful festive treat, one that you would want to watch over and over again.
The Shepherd is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar