Disney Plus’ latest Holiday-themed offering is the screen adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novella “The Shepherd.” Directed by Iain Softley, who also wrote the screenplay, “The Shepherd” does not overstay its welcome. The film, with its thirty-eight-minute duration, recognizes the simplistic nature of its story and drives the point home succinctly and effectively, thus leaving its audience positively warm and fuzzy. That has been the goal, after all. What more could a viewer ask from a Christmas-themed film?
Set in 1957, Forsyth’s novella follows the journey of a Royal Air Force pilot, Freddie Hooke (Ben Radcliffe). Freddie is stationed at the British base in Northern Germany, Celle Air Base. It is Christmas Eve, and he would love nothing more than to go home to his mother and sister and to his lover, Lizzie (Millie Kent). Although, at first, it seemed that he would not get the chance, fate has other plans for him. An injury to one of the other pilots means that Freddie could take that spot to fly back home.
Thus begins the journey for Freddie to spend Christmas with his desired ones. A simple enough journey over the North Sea for him with ample fuel. However, fate takes another turn. Freddie’s aircraft starts to malfunction. First, the compass goes, then his communications. Stranded in mid-air over the limitless sea, with no direction his situation starts to worsen as each minute passes by.
The aircraft’s fuel starts to deplete as he roams in circles, hoping to be noticed or heard by some other flight’s radar or comms. With each passing minute and constantly dwindling fuel, his chances of making it to the nearest base also diminish. Ben Radcliffe here gets the chance to show his craft for a bit as Freddie moves from excitement and ecstasy to panic and despair. And he is fairly okay at that.
“The Shepherd” is a Christmas movie laced with mysterious intrigue and the magical joy one would expect and desire from a Christmas movie. So, just when Freddie completes writing his apparent last letter for Lizzie, enters the human embodiment of the divine intervention. Freddie catches sight of another aircraft in the dense fog. He could not communicate, but the pilot (John Travolta) of that flight notices Freddie in distress. Although Freddie cannot be heard, it appears that he can hear through his communication. The pilot says he will guide Freddie home.
Freddie should trust him and follow him. With no option but to trust this mysterious beacon of hope, Freddie starts to descend through the fog, not knowing if it is the bottomless sea or the sweet concrete surface that awaits him. But true to his words, the pilot’s path guides Freddie to the lights of a runway. An old lieutenant greets Freddie. He tells him about the stories of John Kavanaugh, the pilot who acts as the shepherd for lost flyers.
Travolta, as the mysterious yet enigmatic Kavanaugh, does well despite the highly limited scope of his role. He just about maintains the larger-than-life charisma, which adds to the mysticism of Kavanaugh. There was not much space for any other acting performances. However, Steven Mackintosh is memorable as the aged Lieutenant who welcomes Freddie. Cinematographer John Mathieson deserves a special mention for painting the night sky on screen. Mathieson’s camera is precise. With clever work of negative space (no pun intended), Mathieson could portray Freddie’s aircraft’s fragility and helplessness without asking the writer to go for dialogues.
Similarly, Kavanaugh’s plane’s entrance in the frame is precise to give just the right amount of glimmer of hope. The night sky shots with both aircraft in unison are something to behold. Director Softley is swift in adapting this simple story of a Christmas miracle; as it needed to be. He does not dilly-dally in establishing characters or moods. We almost knew that Freddie would run into trouble, as we could easily anticipate the divine intervention that would save his life. There is no surprise, and Softley does not try to do so either. “The Shepherd” is not a layered story that would engross you through the journeys of its intriguing characters. It is a story that can be heard and told by the fireside. A classic story of morality, heroism, and above all, hope.