Directed by Iain Softley, Disney+’s short film, ‘The Shepherd,’ follows a young RAF pilot whose journey takes a turn for the worse when he is caught in unexpected circumstances. Flying home from Germany, Freddie Marks expected to have clear weather while flying over the North Sea. But in the middle of the journey, his compass gives way, and as the fog starts to settle on the path, he has no way to make heads or tails of where he is. The fuel starts to run out, leaving Freddie on the brink of death. But then, a miracle happens, which is rather unbelievable but also chilling at times. SPOILERS AHEAD
The Shepherd Adapts Frederick Forsyth’s Novella
‘The Shepherd’ is based on Frederick Forsyth’s novella of the same name, which the author reportedly wrote as a Christmas story for his wife, who wanted an element of horror in it. Forsyth took it as a challenge because a Christmas story in the horror genre meant he had to make it wholesome as well as chilling. He tapped into his experience as a pilot in the Royal Air Force and concocted the story of a pilot who finds himself in unfortunate circumstances on Christmas Eve.
The element of horror acts more as a surprise and is attributed to Forsyth’s knowledge of the horror stories surrounding RAF. The author, however, has not specified whether he based his novella on any particular story. Instead, he used real-life locations and other details to make it feel as real as possible. For example, in the story, Freddie takes off from an RAF airbase called CELLE. It is a real airbase in Germany which was used by the RAF. It was shut down in 1957, which is when the movie takes place.
Even with the elements that Forsyth fabricated in the story, he made sure to surround it with enough real-life detail. For example, Freddie safely lands at RAF Minton. It is not a real-life airbase, but the location as described in the book, is quite close to a real-life airfield from the town of Cromer.
When it came to making the film, the person who was most involved and invested in the story was actor John Travolta. He plays the role of the Canadian pilot John Kavanagh, who saves Freddie just when all hope seems to have been lost. The actor read Forsyth’s book around the time when he’d been through a similar experience in real life. Reportedly, Travolta “experienced a total electrical failure, not in a Vampire but a corporate jet, over Washington DC.”
“When I read the book, it resonated more because of this experience I’d personally had. I knew what it felt like to absolutely think you’re going to die because I had two good jet engines, but I had no instruments, no electric, nothing,” he said. Travolta had his family on board and, for a while, was really scared that things might not end well for them. Luckily, when they descended, he got a glimpse of the Washington DC monument and got an immediate idea of where they were and how to get to the airport. This chilling experience made him connect with the story, and he decided to make it into a movie.
Initially, Travolta wanted to play the pilot himself, but that was thirty years ago. When the movie finally got made, though as a short film instead of a feature-length, Travolta found himself closer in age to Kavanagh. The role of the protagonist went to Ben Radcliffe, who Travolta said “captured that despair when you think you’re actually going to die” beautifully. With all this in mind, we can say that while ‘The Shepherd’ is a fictional story, the writer and the filmmakers created its connections with reality to make it seem as real as possible.