In the years before she became an iconic figure in Federico Fellini’s 1960 blockbuster “La Dolce Vita,” Anita Ekberg had a brief flirtation with Hollywood stardom.
The stunning blonde was named Miss Sweden in 1950. She didn’t win the Miss Universe pageant that year, but Ekberg did land a modeling contract that resulted in a series of Hollywood film roles, including the final Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin picture “Hollywood or Bust” in 1956.
Howard Hughes apparently had a thing for her, signing Ekberg to a contract at his RKO studio and giving her a big publicity build-up in which he compared the newcomer to those two other Swedish imports Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman.
Ekberg wasn’t really an actress at that point, but she had a stunning physical presence that is evident in the best movie Hughes put her in, “Back from Eternity” (1956), which has just been released on DVD by Warner Archive.
The movie is a remake of “Five Came Back” (1939). Both films were directed by John Farrow — Mia’s dad — and tell an aviation disaster story that is much tougher than “The High and the Mighty” (1954), “Airport” (1970) and other films in the genre.
Ekberg is one of the passengers on a commercial flight that crashes in a remote part of Brazil during the rainy season. The pilot (Robert Ryan) knows from the start that there is no hope of rescue — the weather pushed the plane way off course and continuous cloud cover makes it impossible for rescue planes to spot the survivors.
The plane’s engines are repaired, but will only have enough power to lift five people back to civilization. Adding to the anxiety of who will be picked for the flight out is the fact that a headhunting tribe is moving ever closer to the crash site.
“Back from Eternity” was clearly shot on a B-picture budget.
The movie is in black-and-white, the special effects are subpar, and the “jungle” was obviously contructed on a soundstage.
The story is gripping enough to overcome those technical obstacles, however, and the cast is a great mix of veteran character actors (Beulah Bondi), appealing young performers who never quite made it in movies (Phyllis Kirk) and at least one rising star (Rod Steiger).
And Anita Ekberg at 25 was so luscious as to justify her appearance in movies on purely physical terms. It’s no wonder that Fellini would pick her four years later to represent the essence of 1950s Hollywood in “La Dolce Vita” — ensuring the former beauty queen a place in movie history.