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The Shepherd ★★★★



Director: Iain Softley

Cast: Ben Radcliffe, John Travolta

Released: 1st December 2023 (Disney+)

It’s sometimes said about actors that they have very little interest in saying when they’re not speaking from a script. That doesn’t apply to the legend of John Travolta. The star of Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction, Look Who’s Talking, and Primary Colours is an eloquent and passionate speaker, especially about the craft of acting, which he loves. At a talk at the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago, he spoke beautifully about the power of art, whether music, literature, paintings or cinema, how art can enlighten you, release long-suppressed emotions such as grief in you or inspire you to make something of your life. “You take away the arts and our soul,” he concluded. He will, no doubt, be hoping that his small piece of art, a new short film called The Shepherd, will touch the hearts and souls of its audience. The 38-minute movie premieres on Disney+ on December 1.

Based on a novella by Frederick Forsyth, who attended a special London screening last week with Travolta, the film is produced by Oscar-winning Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. Travolta serves as executive producer and one of the stars.

The Shepherd opens with a moonlit, snowbound dream-57 like Christmas Eve in 1957. The sort of whimsical, magical Christmas Eve that is part of cinema’s romanticised portrayal of a simpler time, a better era. A young RAF pilot (Ben Radcliffe) takes the last single pilot plane from his base in Germany out across the North Sea to reach his family and sweetheart in time for Christmas. Halfway through the short journey, above the icy waves, his radio and electric power cut out, leaving him facing almost certain death as his fuel supplies begin to run perilously low. Frantic efforts to contact the base fail, and with hope slipping away, he prepares his silent goodbyes to loved ones. Then, out of the fog, another plane arrives, and the reassuring presence of an experienced American pilot offers him hope and a lifeline.

Originally written as a full-length feature, The Shepherd is a complete story in 38 minutes. The language and style of the era are beautifully captured in the performances, the flying sequences are magnificently rendered, and the mood of something otherworldly and mythical pervades the movie.

The film is directed by Iain Softley (Backbeat, Hackers), who was also at a recent screening. It’s a passion project for everyone involved. Travolta and Cuarón loved the book and wanted to make the film for years. Travolta first became interested in the project in 1989, when he owned a vampire jet, like the one in the movie. Although famously an experienced pilot, in another of his planes, he came very close to suffering a terrible fate himself on a flight. He had his family on board and truly believed this was the end. Happily, his ordeal ended safely, but having had the closest real-life experience with the pilot in the film, he stayed with him. (He was full of admiration for how Ben Radcliffe captures the tumultuous emotions in those moments in the cockpit when you think you are going to die).

In a case of serendipity, shortly after his own terrifying experience, Travolta picked up the novella at an airport in Canada. Because he was drawn to the vampire jet on the cover, he read the book, loved it and bought its rights. Then, he had envisaged playing the young RAF pilot. Thirty years on, “I’m a realist.” he laughed, pulling his skin back in a face-lifting motion. So, instead, he plays the mysterious good samaritan who comes out of the skies to the young pilot’s rescue.

With his work commitments and the vagaries of film production, nothing much happened for years on the project, and his options ran out. Meanwhile, Iain Softley and Alfonso Cuarón had their eyes on the project and invited Travolta back into it. His star presence, his real-life experience as a pilot, and his ability to bring a gravitas to the role of the mysterious Shepherd seemed no-brain. Although his appearance is brief, it’s pivotal to the story.

After the screening, Travolta also explained how he had used his executive producer role to make a dynamic request for a particular contribution to the musical soundtrack. It’s a perfect addition to the film and may help make it the sort of Christmas classic people turn to year after year.

“This film is one of the few projects I’ve invested my heart and soul into, “Travolta told us and the loving care with which the movie is made is reflected in the beautiful story we see on screen. Iain Softley says the story’s many qualities attracted him. He describes it as ‘an exquisite contained Christmas fable, both mysterious and profoundly moving with a couple of unexpected twists.’

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