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Written by James Swan
Anyone who enjoys outdoor sports— fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, skiing, boating, etc.—should know that they involve some level of risk; often the most attractive sports also carry some of the biggest risks. People who recognize this and prepare are least likely to have any problems, or if they do, they will know what to do. Preparation is both practical and mental. I’m going to give you a list of some of my favorite films about wilderness survival, ones that are what I’ll call edu-tainment films; ones that will make you think. These are all available to buy on Amazon.com and via various streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
1) The Edge (1997)
A bookish billionaire played by Anthony Hopkins accompanies his wife, a gorgeous model (Elle MacPherson), on a fashion shoot in the Canadian Rockies. The young photographer, played by Alec Baldwin, his assistant and Hopkins go off for a plane ride to scout locations in the mountains. The plane hits a flock of birds and crashes. The pilot is dead and the three men start to work their way out, none of them having much wilderness survival experience. Hopkins’ character, however, has read about wilderness survival, and puts his knowledge to work, saving himself and the photographer from starvation, cold weather and a hungry grizzly bear. A memorable quote from Charles Morse, Hopkins’ character, is “you know, I once read an interesting book which said that, uh, most people lost in the wilds, they, they die of shame…What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this? And so they sit there and they…die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that would save their lives.” That thing, of course, is having focus and self-confidence and not losing it.
A number of years ago there was a case of such a death happening in Oregon. A group of women hiked into the North Cascades for a weekend retreat. They were suddenly swept into an early blizzard. When the group began walking back out in the blizzard, one woman just sat down and cried and would not move. She died of hypothermia. Everyone else survived.
Back to The Edge. Along the way, Hopkins’ character discovers that the photographer has been having an affair with his wife, resulting in the two men trying to kill each other. The journey back is filled with suspense, action and periodic practical and psychological advice on wilderness survival. Bart, a bear featured in the film, deserved an Oscar for his performance. So does writer David Mamet.
2) Touching the Void (2003)
This incredible film is the true story of two young mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, and their perilous 1985 journey up the west face of Siula Grande, a 20,814-foot-high peak in the Peruvian Andes. They reached the summit for the first time ever, but on their descent, Simpson fell and broke his leg. Yates tried to lower Simpson on a rope, but complications developed. A severe snowstorm descended on them and visual contact between the two became impossible. Not knowing the fate of his partner, Yates ultimately decided to save his own life and cut the rope. Simpson, however, was still alive. Yates made it down to base camp in the storm, believing that Simpson was dead. Simpson, despite a broken leg and suffering from delirium, somehow managed to make it down the mountain and arrive at base camp just as Yates was about to leave.
Filmed as a documentary with commentaries by Simpson and Yates, the most perilous parts of the story are re-enactment by stunt actors Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron and Ollie Ryall. This documentary deserved an Oscar. It did not get one, but it won a number of other awards. Apparently both men still climb mountains, but not together. Truly a film about making good choices, willpower, and decision-making, with some incredible stunts.
3) Into the Wild (2007)
Based on a true story, after graduating from Emory University, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) abandons his possessions, gives his entire savings account to charity and goes off on a quest of self-discovery, taking chances along the way that frequently are life-threatening. He survives and ultimately hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wilderness, like a modern Thoreau. His knowledge of wilderness survival is limited, and ultimately he dies, presumably from food poisoning and hypothermia.
A number of my friends in Alaska who are guides and game wardens hate this film and the book that it’s based on, as it has moved a number of people to try to follow in McCandless’ footsteps. McCandless was not only unprepared for wilderness survival, he did not take the required Hunter Education Course nor buy a hunting license, and he shot a moose and small game for food. If he had taken the course, it’s likely he would have survived. This is a good dose of reality for anyone wanting to be a modern Thoreau. Nature is not always nice, beautiful, warm and fuzzy.
4) 127 Hours (2010)
Starring James Franco, this is another film based on a true story. A mountain climber, Aron Ralston, becomes trapped under a boulder while canyoneering alone near Moab, Utah. He is there for five days and ultimately has to resort to amputating his own arm to free himself, scaling a 65 foot wall and hiking eight miles before he can be rescued. Franco was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and the film won numerous awards.
This is a film about courage that may you chill you to watch it, but ultimately it is very inspirational. Ralston never loses his focus, which is good wilderness medicine.
5) The River Wild (1993)
Gail (Meryl Streep), an expert at whitewater rafting, takes her family on a trip down a wild river in Idaho and Montana. Along the way, the family encounters two men who are inexperienced rafters who need help. Later, the family finds out that the men (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reily) are armed robbers. The two outlaws force the family to take them down the river to meet their accomplices.
You learn a lot about navigating whitewater by watching this film. The actors did many of their own stunts. Meryl Streep, in fact, nearly drowned in one. I also like this film because I love running whitewater rivers, and again you learn about navigating whitewater, and making good choices.
A basic fundamental law of wilderness survival is if you make one bad decision, often, you will make more. If you ever find yourself stuck in a bad situation in the woods and you are uncertain about what to do, sit down, clear your head, assess your situation, and make a plan to get out.
Four other classic wilderness survival pictures also are great entertainment, but have less direct educational message except don’t give up. The Naked Prey (1966) is about a group of hunters on safari in Africa who run afoul of the natives and one man escapes, running naked and without weapons as he is chased by natives through the bush. Then there’s unforgettable Deliverance (1972) by director John Boorman, where a group of recreationists including Burt Reynolds and John Voight run a wild river in Appalachia and run into nasty locals. Limbo (1999), a John Sayles Alaskan survival tale, leaves us wondering if the elements or bad people will do in the heroes stranded on an island on the south coast of Alaska. And, most recently, The Grey (2012), starring Liam Neeson, where a plane crash lands in Alaska and the survivors are attacked by wolves. Those of you who saw this movie in the theater deserve a “thanks,” because the pro-wolf people tried to get people to boycott it. This is truly a tale about determination and courage in the face of danger.
I should note here that all the wilderness survival pictures mentioned in this column were financially successful, which is one reason why we keep seeing such films made. If you want to see more films and TV shows that shed light on wilderness, hunting and fishing, watch those that do come out.
As a footnote: one consequence of all the zombie movies of late has been “zombie preparedness” (last time I went to a shooting range the targets were zombies). Sounds like a joke, but according to CDC, zombie preparedness has made more people aware of the value of being prepared for natural disasters. According to CDC Director Dr. Ali Khan, “if you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack.”
Main image: View of Eielson Corridor in Denali National Park, Alaska (Sandy Brown Jensen/Flickr)
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