John Travolta's The Shepherd unfolds on Christmas Eve with a Royal Air Force pilot (Ben Radcliffe) anxious to hurry home when his compass malfunctions while flying over the North Sea. His crackling radio sits in hushed silence. As his instruments falter and his Vampire Mk9 jet appears to suffer from an electrical failure, the young pilot contemplates his death. A second Royal Air Force pilot (Travolta) materializes in a sleek Mosquito spy plane to help shepherd him home but can they possibly land safely with dwindling fuel?
The movie is based on Frederick Forsyth's book of the same name. It struck a chord with Travolta, a pilot who experienced a total electrical failure years ago - not in a Vampire but in a corporate jet over Washington D.C. "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," Travolta told journalists.
Intrigued? Here are five more behind-the-scenes secrets of Disney+'s The Shepherd.
1. Forsyth was a British spy
As an 18-year-old in National Service, Forsyth flew the de Havilland Vampire Mk9, a single-seat jet fighter developed in the 1940s and used during the Cold War for reconnaissance. It remained in front-line Royal Air Force (RAF) service until 1953.
In his autobiography, Forsyth reveals that in addition to being a pilot, he was also a spy for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, for more than two decades starting in 1967. The Cold War was very much on,” he told the BBC. “If someone asked: ‘Can you see your way clear to do us a favor?’, it was very hard to say no.”
2. The Shepherd was written on a dare
While the newlywed Forsyths celebrated the holidays in Dublin in 1974, Forsyth pretended he'd forgotten his wife’s present (he actually had a diamond ring in his pocket). She taunted him to write her a ghost story instead. While Forsyth knew nothing about the spirit world, he knew quite a lot about flying - he’d trained as a RAF pilot long before writing The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, and other spy thrillers. After lunch, Forsyth settled down with a typewriter in the hotel library. "I knew of the utter emptiness and loneliness of the night sky at 30,000 feet with the stratospheric temperature outside the tiny cockpit far below zero and a freezing death inevitable if the life-giving systems failed. So I began to write," Forsyth said. He completed The Shepherd in time for evening drinks.