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This mostly forgotten film is the first film adaptation of the the Hugh Glass story, later made into The Revenant. Though the names have been changed it follows closely the now famous events of the fur-trader who somehow survives what surely would end most of us. A gritty and authentic film, this is one to see simply to compare it with movie it inspired decades later.
When a group of fur-traders discover one of their own (Richard Harris) is mauled by a bear, the captain of the group, (John Huston), decides that every man is expendable, and because the wounds are too severe, believes him a dead man by morning. He is buried and they leave, but that turns out to be a big mistake. His unbreakable spirit just about literally drags him for his tomb and from there, he heals himself and makes a treacherous journey through the frozen wilderness to seek his revenge.
While there have been myriad films with people trapped on a deserted island, none are more remembered than this mostly solo-acted film that sees Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), the lone survivor of a plane crash, trying to keep himself alive on a tiny South Pacific island.
This character driven story is flawed on both ends, but it is it’s lengthy, wonderfully acted and photographed middle that holds this film together as Hanks literally transforms himself from the pudgy, soft middle class city boy to a lean and highly-skilled island hunter, making it through the long days and nights alone with a volleyball he names Wilson, who provided him with a “person” to talk with, and the hope that one day he will see his fiancee again. Marked by extreme dips in emotion and a powerful performance by Hanks, Cast Away is a very compelling survivor film, despite the missteps it makes in the end.
In a twist of man vs. nature, this man vs. man vs. nature film (written by none other than David Mamet) sees a fashion photographer (Alec Baldwin) crashed in the wilderness with the wealthy and jealous husband (Anthony Hopkins) of a supermodel (Elle Macpherson) who is convinced the two are having an affair. Oh, and there’s a bear. A big, angry bear.
The on-screen pairing of Baldwin and Hopkins might seem odd, but the two put on an acting tour-de-force as they fight each other and the wilds to try and survive. This taunt, psychological thriller is better than expected that is rich with sharp dialogue and some truly frightful bear attack moments. Of course, being a Mamet-written work, there is some mystery and exquisitely delicious verbal exchanges. I could say it will have you on the “edge” of your seat, but I won’t.
Christian Bale has made a career out of transforming himself for his films, and does it again in this harrowing tale of a pilot shot down over Vietnam and taken prisoner. The film chronicles his endurance through horrific torture and then his escape and trek through the jungle to be free. This often forgotten entry in Bale’s deep catalog is directed by Werner Herzog and is a gripping, terrifying experience of survival against incredible odds.
Bale is always a sure bet when it comes to delivering, but the real surprise here is Steve Zhan, an actor known mostly for his comedy, who equals Bale every step of the way as a fellow prisoner at the isolated jungle compound where they are imprisoned. While Herzog is much better at documentaries, this fictionalized dramatization of actual events is still one of the most emotional and horrifying personal experiences about prisoners of war and staying alive in the face of the worst odd ever made.
Hey, nobody said these had to be survivor films on Earth. This one sees a scientist/astronaut stranded on the planet Mars after he is mistakenly left for dead after a powerful storm forces the remainder of the crew to flee. Now, with limited supplies, he must try and survive utterly unknown odds until a rescue can be mounted.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist, fortunately, and with some clever and resourceful methods is able to find a way to sustain himself through what is a truly singular and unique human endeavor as he attempts to stay alive in the most inhospitable condition in which death is literally a possibility with nearly every step he takes. While the film over-indulges in its protracted ending, like Cast Away above, an easy comparison, it excels in the middle as Watney using his skills and confidence to overcome tremendous odds.
Speaking of space, here’s another great survivor story that takes place off Earth. And this one is based on a true story. The three crew members of the Apollo 13 mission to the Moon find themselves in life-threatening danger as their craft develops a problem (Somebody call Houston!) and are forced to give up their plans in order to do whatever they can to make it back without dying in the cold empty void.
Tom Hanks (again) is left to try and figure out how to make it home once his ship is deserted in a far away place. This time, he’s not alone though and with the help of some truly smart people back home, it’s a matter of refiguring the ship’s original schematics to make it do something it was never meant to do. Turning their space ship into a life boat, the three work as a team and fight against certain death to make it back to Earth.
The real life story of Christopher McCandless is tragic, as a young man searches for meaning in his world, ending up alone in the wilds of Alaska in an abandoned bus, his inexperience and unpreparedness for the harsh realities of the open wilderness a challenge he isn’t ready to face, no matter how badly he wants it.
Directed by Sean Penn, Into The Wild is a deeply personal film that respectfully chronicles the last weeks of McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) as he meets the most influential people he’s ever known as he gets closer to the snows of the Alaskan terrain, his ultimate goal. The struggles of his adventure alone are gripping and disturbing and forces us to question the boy’s motivations and yet wonder at our own lives in retrospect.
When a plane crash (and not the only on this list) leaves a group of not-so-good people stranded in the frozen wilds of Alaska (again), oil pipeline workers must face unthinkable odds as they battle their way out of the woods, facing a pack of very hungry and ruthless wolves.
Liam Neeson, who has a particular set of skills, but not the one you’re thinking of, attempts to lead this brash band of men through the dark as the crafty wolves pick them off one by one. Advertised as a silly action movie, it disappointed fans because it is much, much more than that, instead, a deeply philosophical and metaphorical examination of humanity that demands a different approach. Most weren’t willing to invest, but this is one survivor film worth watching as it challenges us in surprising ways.
While it might be tempting to put 2015’s Mt. Everest on this list, it is 2003’s Touching the Void that is the more remarkable survivor story of man against mountain as this documentary/drama is a wholly fascinating and troubling look at what drives some to face death in order achieve what most would consider unthinkable. The true story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates climb of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 is a shockingly good story of incredible survival.
After reaching the summit of the highly difficult and dangerous ascent, the climbers are caught in a storm after Simpson has broken his leg in a fall. The mix of interviews and reenactments is powerfully effective, detailing the extraordinary ordeal the two men face as they attempt to get off the mountain. A superior mountain climbing and survivor film, it is also an emotional human experience and one you will not soon forget.
When a team of Uruguayan rugby players are stranded in the snow-capped mountains of the Andes after their plane crashes, they are forced to face the unthinkable if they wish to stay alive and be rescued. Based on the harrowing true-life experiences of the ones who survived the accident only to overcome even worse odds, it is a truly inspiring survival story.
Led by Ethan Hawke, the crash itself is hard to watch, but when the boys find themselves hopelessly lost on a mountain top with freezing conditions and a shattered fuselage as their only shelter, the real problem comes in finding sustenance. With corpses piled beside them, a fateful choice is made and a pact agreed upon to ensure those that remain will have the best chance to see their homes again. Gripping, terrifying and incredibly moving, this is a remarkable story of survival.
What is your favorite survival film?