‘The Shepherd’ Review: A Spooky, Cold War Tale Lands In Time For Christmas

Halloween might be the time to all enjoy an all-encompassing horror, but Christmas is very much the season for a ghost story. No, not zombies, vampires, werewolves or aliens, ghosts and ghosts only are fit for Christmas. And it’s with an eye very much on the seasonal ‘we’re all stuck inside what can we watch which won’t traumatise the kids’ market that ‘The Shepherd’ gently touches down on Disney+.

Based on the short 1975 novella by Frederick Forsyth, ‘The Shepherd’ is set in 1957 and tells the story of a British Vampire jet pilot flying home from his RAF base in Germany across a freezing, empty sky to be home with his girlfriend. He manages to leave last thing on Christmas Eve on what should be a relatively straightforward flight home to Blighty. Alas, things don’t quite work out that way and somewhere over the North Sea his plane’s instruments and radio fails as a fog bank rolls in. He’s left with dwindling fuel supplies and no way of getting home. With time ticking away he is surely about to plummet to his doom in an icy sea.

Miraculously, another plane finds him, a ‘shepherd’, which guides him safely back to earth. He manages to land safely, but that’s where the story starts to reveal its twist.

Forsyth, who is perhaps most famous as an author for his thrillers such as ‘The Day of The Jackal’, ‘The Odessa File’ and ‘The Fourth Protocol’, wrote the story at the request of his first wife who wanted a ghost story written for her. Apparently, he sat down on Christmas Day in 1974 and dashed it off, publishing it the following year. The book is a great read, rammed full of detail which help to add a veneer of ‘truth’ to the story’. Like the film, it isn’t a ghost story set in a haunted house or spooky church, it’s very much in the modern world, or at least what passed for that in the 1950s. If the descriptions sound convincing that shouldn’t be a surprise as Forsyth was a pilot on the same kind of aircraft at the same time. Write what you know has never been better illustrated perhaps.

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So how does the version that’s rocked up on Disney+ play? Well, it’s gently told, literally the whole family could watch it, and it’s a pleasant enough story. The cast is fine, you even have John Travolta popping up. There’s a decent amount of tinsel spread across proceedings, and the rendering of the snow-covered countryside and starry night sky might make you glad you are safely tucked up on the sofa rather than freezing your behind off at 37,0000 feet, but you can’t help but feel it lacks a bit of peril. The scenes as the pilot realises the trouble he’s in and what this means to him lack drama. Some of the aerial CGI effects also are pretty pedestrian. The film only really hits the afterburners in the last few minutes as you start working out what has been going on, only for a final rug pull of a reveal to surprise you. Well, surprise me, I’ve read the book and they added their own little flourish to proceedings which caught me off guard.

Atmospheric, solid if unspectacular this is a charming and enjoyable story everyone can follow. At 39 minutes, it’s an odd length – the story would have been stretched too thin for 90 minutes or more, making it seem like maybe this would work as an episode from a TV series?

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