Saturday, January 20, 2024

Short Film Shortlist: The Shepherd

Ever since The Christmas Box released in the mid-1990’s, publishers have been chasing its success with gift-sized Christmas novellas. Yet, thriller writer Frederick Forsyth had the idea twenty years earlier. For years, his story of a fateful Christmas Eve flight has been a radio tradition. Now, Iain Softley’s dramatic adaption of The Shepherd is on the Academy Award shortlist for live-action short.

The United Kingdom is at-peace in the 1950’s, but the ghosts of WWII remain. Freddie Hook has followed in the footsteps of his father, an RAF Airman fatally shot down by the Germans. He was not expecting this solo flight, but he volunteered to take the injured pilot’s place at the last moment. His take-off will be the tower’s last business before closing for the holiday, which will be unfortunate, since all his instruments, gages, and communications cut-out once he reaches cruising altitude.

Hook (unnamed in the original novella) is literally flying blind, when he is suddenly shrouded in freak cloud cover. He falls back on his training, but he will need a miracle, like a so-called “shepherd” pilot to help guide him in. There might just be one, but why would Johnny Cavanaugh be in the skies in a WWII-era Mosquito on a Christmas Eve night?

Although it is under forty minutes,
The Shepherd is the best film Disney released in all of 2023. It is based on a Novella, but it probably requires studio resources to properly produce a period aviation drama. A name like Alfonso Cuaron on-board as producer probably helps too.

The flight sequences look great and 1950s costumes and trappings all look authentic. Softley dexterously hits the right nostalgic and uplifting notes. It is sentimental, but not schmaltzy. Tonally, it is a lot like the feel-good episodes of
The Twilight Zone, such as “The Changing of the Guard.” In fact, that episode would pair up nicely with The Shepherd.

Ben Radcliffe has the appropriate look and bearing for the inexperienced Hook, while Steven Mackintosh is terrific as Sgt. Joe Marks. John Travolta’s passion for aviation clearly gave him an affinity for the role of Cavanaugh, but his heavy beard looks unsuitable for a military character.

Regardless, it is nice to Disney finally produce a military-friendly film. It is the British military, but its still a good start. Cinematography John Mathieson gives it a suitably frosty look, while Anne Chmelewsky’s music subtly reinforces the late-night, magical vibe. Highly recommended,
The Shepherd streams on Disney+ and its is in contention for a short film nomination next week.