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The Shepherd (2023) Review

I don’t usually cover shorts, I always seem to have more features to review than I do time, and there’s usually little interest in them from readers when I do. But I had to make an exception for The Shepherd. I remembered reading Frederick Forsyth’s novella when I was growing up, and a reading of it by the late Al Maitland has been a Christmas tradition on CBC radio since 1979. So, telling myself that since The Academy considers forty minutes to be feature length, I finally used the Disney+ subscription my wife got us and checked it out.

Freddie (Ben Radcliffe, Pandora, Cuban Fury) is an RAF pilot stationed in Germany and wishing he was home for the holidays. He sees his chance when a fellow pilot is injured and can’t make his scheduled flight to England. Despite only recently qualifying for night flying, he volunteers to make the run. “It’s a straight run across the North Sea” he tells his superior. After checking the weather, he agrees to let him fly the De Havilland Vampire, a single engine jet, back to England.

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Freddie has no sooner made it to the coast than his instruments start to act up leaving him without a compass or a radio to call for help. As if to seal his fate, the weather changes and a heavy fog develops, preventing him from attempting visual navigation. As his fuel runs low, desperation sets in. And then he sees a World War II vintage bomber piloted by John Kavanaugh (John Travolta, In A Valley of Violence, Paradise City) come out of the clouds.

But that’s only the start of a bigger mystery.

It’s somewhat surprising that The Shepherd wasn’t filmed before now. Travolta himself owned the rights for years and never did anything with them, it was only after he let them go that producer Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Roma) was able to get it greenlighted. Before he did, its Twilight Zone styled story would have been perfect as a holiday episode of a network anthology show or a stand-alone Christmas special.

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That wait might have been for the best though, director Iain Softley (Inkheart, The Skeleton Key) does a good job of adapting Forsyth’s work and keeping a balance between the film’s natural and supernatural elements. He also manages to make the reveals in The Shepherd’s last few minutes effective even though they were easy to guess reading the book let alone in the more visual, and revealing, medium of film.

But The Shepherd isn’t a story built around shocks or thrills, something that may come as a surprise to those who know Forsyth as the author of novels such as The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File and The Dogs of War. It’s a more uplifting tale that pays tribute to those who risked their lives for their country, and especially those who went above and beyond what was required.

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On the downside, The Shepherd does suffer from some surprisingly poor CGI shots of the aircraft. I’m used to that in low budget films, but this is Disney, they should have had no problem making two planes look real. The one other issue I had with the film is Travolta plays a Canadian pilot, but he doesn’t sound it. Granted, he doesn’t have many lines, but they should just have made his character an American and avoided the issue.

Whether you want to look at it as a ghost story or, given its Christmas Eve setting, something more spiritual, The Shepherd stands out among all the usual Hallmark Christmas drivel and makes a nice alternative to the aging holiday specials that have been rerun since the 60s.

The Shepherd is available on Disney+.

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