Nature poses a problem; humans offer a solution. This is the simple joy offered by survival movies, which flatter us into thinking we could make do without the comforts of civilization, despite our weak teeth, poor eyesight, dull hearing, nearly useless noses, lack of fur, embarrassingly slow speed, and a complete and total inexperience that has disqualified many better-equipped zoo animals from ever being released into the wild. Survival stories, then, are a celebration of all the things you can accomplish with a larger-than-average cerebral cortex and a couple of opposable thumbs. Have you seen what Leo, I mean Hugh Glass, had to go through in The Revenant?
Here at the Survival Awards, we are mostly concerned with heat, shelter, calories, and potable water. Predators are, of course, a problem, but if you spend the whole narrative concerned with extremely aggressive sharks, or unusually murderous wolves, you are in a monster movie, not a survival movie. The same logic disqualifies movies, set in nature, that center on a conflict between man and man. If you think this makes the Survival Awards arbitrary and capricious, just wait. Due to budgetary constraints among the Survival Awards Board of Directors — that is to say, me — there’s a strong bias towards films available on Netflix and within the rental system of the Chicago Public Libraries. What can I say? It wouldn’t be an awards presentation if there weren’t problems with the voters.
One last warning: This is a study of human resourcefulness in cinema. Expect graphic content, and also – what some people find even harder to stomach – spoilers.
Without further ado, Consequence of Sound presents: The 1st Annual Survival Movie Awards.
Dieter Dengler Goes in Circles from Rescue Dawn (2006)
Trudging is a survival movie staple, right up there with hallucinations, eating insects, and false rescues. Whether it’s trudging through deep snow, across barren deserts, or over treacherous mountains, there’s always lots of terrain to be crossed, and that means lots of scenes of tired people falling down.
But nothing is quite as visceral as the long shots of Dieter Dengler, played by Christian Bale, hacking his way through the jungle. Earlier, before his escape from the POW camp, Dengler is told that “the jungle is the prison.” When you watch him spend 20 seconds furiously attacking a wall of grass, take a few steps forward, and begin all over again, it’s easy to understand why.
Two things elevate this beyond other jungle journeys: First, Werner Herzog’s commitment to authenticity, which meant that it was actually filmed in a jungle in Thailand and the actors are actually pushing their way through choking vegetation; and second, Herzog’s attention to Dengler’s feet. Dengler is barefoot, except for the sole of an old tennis shoe, which is fastened to one foot at a time with rattan and which he shares with his companion Duane until Duane’s death. That little flap of shoe has more character than many film’s protagonists.
Best Solution to Water
The Solar Still from All Is Lost (2013)
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
The old, unnamed mariner played by Robert Redford in All Is Lost can certainly relate to Coleridge’s famous lines. He wakes up in the middle of the Indian Ocean to find that a shipping container has punctured a hole in his yacht and that saltwater has flooded the electronic equipment. He is the only passenger. Over eight silent days, we watch him manually pump water, try to patch the hole, manage (and mismanage) the sails, and attempt to survive tropical storms. There are no grand musical swells, no heroic monologues — just long shots of Redford eating from a cold tin of beans as the light slowly fades from his eyes.
His use of a sextant and compass is fascinating, but the greatest test of his ingenuity comes when saltwater gets into the last jug of fresh water. By cutting off the lid of the container, fitting a plastic sheet over the top, and setting a tin cup inside, he boils saltwater in the tropical sun and catches fresh water as condensation. In the annals of literature and cinema, you can find other examples of these devices, called solar stills, but All Is Lost takes this award for the rueful, not-quite-smile the mariner makes when he tastes his first fresh water in days. His thoughts can be read clearly on his face – that he still doesn’t believe he’s going to survive, but he knows he’ll live for a while longer.
Into the Crevasse! from Touching the Void (2003)
Movies are expensive, and movies that end in everyone dying tend to be poor box office bets. Survival movies, which are essentially misery porn, undergo a vetting process before they ever arrive in theaters, which means they almost always tick one of the following boxes: A.) They are based on a true story, preferably a commercially successful book; B.) They end in a miraculous rescue; or, most frequently, C.) All of the above. In other words, within the survival genre, people tend to get really lucky.
Some examples of luck are more astonishing than others. Based on a book by Joe Simpson, Touching the Void is a documentary in the Errol Morris mold. There are interviews with Simpson and his climbing partner Simon Yates about their disastrous, successful scaling of the West Face of Siula Grande, a mountain in Peru; and there are dramatized recreations of the events, including the moment when Simpson, who had already broken his leg, falls several hundred feet into a crevasse.
The next day, unable to climb out, and unable to communicate with his partner, Simpson lowers himself deeper into the crevasse, leaving the knot at the end of his rope untied so that, if there is no escape, as he suspects, he can at least hope to fall a great distance and avoid death by starvation.
Kevin MacDonald’s tight direction makes this moment taught, even thrilling — no slight feat, since Simpson himself is narrating the events, which ought to remove all the suspense. Still, knowing that Simpson survives isn’t the same as knowing how, and it reinforces one of the oldest lessons from history: that it’s better to be lucky than good.
Best Solution to Food
Oh, You Know, Whoever’s Lying Around from Alive (1993)
Alive is a feel-good horror movie. Based on true events from the fall of 1972, it follows the members of a Uruguayan rugby team from Stella Maris College. Before they could play a contest against a rugby team in Chile, their plane lost a contest with a mountain in the Andes. Of the 45 people on the flight — the pilots, crew, rugby players, team staff, and family members traveling to see the match — 12 died in the crash. Another six died of injuries sustained in the crash over the next few days. Eight more died in an avalanche on the 17th day, and three more who had been injured in the crash died over the course of the next two months.
Those who survived quickly ran out of whatever small snack foods they could salvage out of the carry-on luggage, and after 11 days, they learned from a mostly-working radio that the search for their plane had been abandoned. The question then became how to survive. Luckily, they had a plentiful protein source stored just outside the plane. Due to the weather, it was even kept on ice.
The script, by the great American playwright John Patrick Shanley, treats the decision to turn cannibal as obvious, even if it isn’t easy. First come the jokes (“I might eat the pilots. They got us into this mess, and I want to get them back.”) Then emotional discussions among the survivors. But in the end, even the most serious taboos can’t stand up to starvation. Alive makes a fairly compelling case that all of us are just a handful of desperate days from doing the same.
Most Difficult Obstacle Overcome
A Nerve Fiber from 127 Hours (2010)
Living and consuming culture in the 21st century, most of us have seen enough gallons of fake blood to drown a large city. While I don’t believe this desensitizes us to violence in real life – I know quite a few horror fanatics who get squeamish at the doctor’s office – I do think it desensitizes us to movie violence.
I hardly noticed when Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, fell into the canyon and had his arm crushed underneath a boulder. I yawned the first time he stabbed his arm with a knife, and I barely batted an eye when he purposefully broke his radius and ulna bones and began sawing through. But the long minute when he tries to cut through a thin, whitish nerve fiber, is absolutely excruciating to watch.
Credit to Franco who’s always so natural with everything from playing pain to playing stoned, and credit to Danny Boyle’s frenetic editing, but the real star of the scene is Glenn Freemantle, master of discomfiting sound design.
Unlike Alive, which makes the case that most of us would do anything necessary to survive, 127 Hours makes the opposite point: that most of us couldn’t have done what Aron Ralston did — that most of us would rather have died.
Best Performance While Starting a Fire
The Great God Chuck Noland from Cast Away (2000)
There are many variations on the myth of Prometheus, but my favorite goes like this: The gods created all living creatures and charged two brothers, Epimetheus and Prometheus, to finish their work. Epimetheus, who isn’t particularly bright, gives all the natural gifts to the animals, leaving humanity naked and helpless. Seeing this and being moved to pity, Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to mankind. This gift, meant to keep us alive, accidentally sets us above all the other animals, and for this reason, Prometheus is bound to a rock, his liver ripped out daily by an eagle. Fire is a tool of the gods, you see, and gives us god-like power.
“With these hands, I have made fire!” Chuck Noland lifts his head and cries these words to the heavens. Bathed in red light and beating his chest, he might very well be a god. After long stretches of the fire failing to catch; of blisters, wind, and broken wood, this is the moment when Noland, played by Tom Hanks, achieves mastery over his uninhabited island.
Among all the climbing accidents, the endless plane crashes, the sweating, the frostbites, the blood, tears, and misery I have watched in the last few weeks, nothing was quite as moving as the sight of those first few tendrils of smoke rising from a patch of dry grass. Fire makes the inedible edible, brings light to the darkness, and creates warmth within inhospitable cold. From the Ancient Greeks through American cinema, there is always drama in one of our oldest, most powerful technologies.