[This list appears as part of “Fifty Days, Fifty Lists” on Keyframe. For more, see “Why Lists.”]
A shoo-in for acting award nominations this year is Reese Witherspoon’s turn as Cheryl Strayed in December release Wild, if only because Hollywood coughs up so few truly leading dramatic roles for women each year. And there’s no question this is Witherspoon’s movie, as she’s largely got it all to herself. It’s based on Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail solo as a sort of personal dare, one intended to pull herself out from the wreckage of substance abuse, divorce, depression and her single mother’s recent death.
Strayed had virtually no experience as backpacker, making any number of decisions a veteran would have known to avoid (like taking equipment she’d never used before); she was ill-equipped to deal with the elements, her bodily aches and the occasional problematic fellow traveler. But as Nick Hornsby’s adapted screenplay, Jean-Marc Vallee’s (Dallas Buyers Club) direction and the star performance itself repeatedly hammer home, the biggest challenge she faced in this self-appointed rite of passage was overcoming her own history of perceived failures.
Wild will no doubt inspire a fair number of wannabes to go off on their own solo treks, hopefully with a little more preparation than Strayed managed. But for those who prefer keeping their adventure to the armchair variety, there are a number of fine other movies about wilderness survival. We’ve rounded up a few you can enjoy streaming; all the excitement and occasional terrors of off-grid, off-trail travel without actually risking your neck—or that fate yea worse than death, the granola bar for dinner.
1. Robinson Crusoe (1952)
The granddaddy of all solo wilderness survival stories, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel has been filmed at least twenty times, not counting unacknowledged spins like Tom Hanks’ Cast Away. One of the most faithful adaptations was also Luis Buñuel’s first movie in color and in English. He insisted on casting little-known American actor Dan O’Herlihy (the producers wanted Orson Welles) as the Englishman shipwrecked on a South American island. There he spends decades ingeniously building his own one-man “civilization” before fate at last disturbs his involuntary solitude. This is among the more conventional films made by the famed Spanish surrealist, although given his scurrilous attitude toward organized religion, you won’t be surprised that this Crusoe primarily diverges from Defoe’s in downplaying the pious tone of the original.
2. Those Three (2007)
No eighteen-year-old greenhorns but grown men with wives and children back home, the three soldier protagonists in Naghi Nemati’s debut feature are most reluctant Iranian Army conscripts. Fed up with the disciplinary rigors of training, they decide to go AWOL. This is a pretty questionable idea, given that they can only flee further into the forbidding winter mountains of their country’s north, a landscape so stark and snowy that their figures are sometimes the only distinguishing shapes on a screen of pure, featureless white. Even so, they’re not the only people here. Smugglers, refugees also attempt to cross this treacherous terrain. But as the situation grows ever more desperate, our heroes are hardly in a position to help themselves, let alone anyone else.
3. Massai (2004)
When a long drought brings starvation, disease and fear to a small village in the Kenyan highlands, tribal elders decide only one solution will do: A group of young “rain warriors,” must track and hunt incarnated god Vitchua, whose cut-off mane will will restore good fortune. But as they journey deep in to the vast, golden savannah, quarreling amongst themselves all the way, other perils arise, from the trivial (fire ants, pissed-off boars) to the deadly (cobras, an ambushing rival tribe). French documentarian Pascal Plisson’s only narrative feature to date is a scenic treat whose nonprofessional lead actors were all found on location. It’s a surprisingly light-hearted tale of life and death in a beautiful but dangerous place far from the trappings of “civilization.”
4. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
The movie that rocketed Werner Herzog to international fame remains, perhaps, his most transfixing. The inimitable Klaus Kinski plays a 16th-century Spanish conquistador who grows more and more unbalanced as his expedition, searching for the mythical “city of gold” El Dorado, succumbs to the many perils of the Peruvian Andes and rainforest. This mystical, near-mythical adventure into madness is full of extraordinary sights (photographed by Thomas Mauch) and sounds (mostly Popul Vuh’s ethereal original score), none more spectacular than Mr. Kinski himself. True to form, the late actor was reportedly just as lunatic as his character during a shoot that by all accounts was nearly as hazardous as the journey it dramatized.
5. Letter Never Sent (1960)
Between his dizzying international romantic hit The Cranes Are Flying and 1964’s I Am Cuba (a film barely known till it was rediscovered as a lost masterpiece two decades later), Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov made this dazzling fever-dream of an outdoor adventure. A geological team of four are deposited via helicopter in the remotest reaches of Siberia in the seemingly remote hope that they can locate diamond deposits. At first, it seems the biggest danger they face is the green-eyed kind, as two men find themselves rival for the only female comrade. But when a forest fire drastically alters their circumstances just as they’ve made a triumphant discovery, the quartet find themselves fighting for their very survival. That fire sequence remains astonishing for the evident peril cast and crew put themselves through. But all of Letter is uniquely, poetically intense as a portrait of Mankind’s aspirations put in perspective by the overpowering force and indifference of Nature.