Most of us take our survival – even our mere presence on the planet we share – for granted, rarely considering it. We have programmed ourselves to react to the non-human environment with a sense of intellectual superiority, that we are in control of our surroundings – the Great Tamer of Nature. We seek natural settings for our homes then knock down the trees for a water view, rid the area of other mammals and soak our lawns and gardens in pesticides to prove that we are masters of our domain.
Yet humans are probably the least reliable creatures on earth when it come to reading their surroundings, listening to their instincts, and drawing any kind of positivity from our increasingly rare interactions with the natural world.
This unique genre goes to great lengths to remind us that there are circumstances in which we can find ourselves, whether by choice or by chance, face-to-face with the reality of our own worth as it relates to nature. Without a mobile phone, a functioning vehicle, and easily accessible groceries, frankly we aren’t worth much. The only thing that can be gained from a singular face-to-face experience is the enlightenment that comes with the possibility of imminent demise, that we are but a tiny thread in the fabric, not the cloth itself.
All but one my five favorites are based on true events – in fact, one is a documentary. Three of my choices are about individuals who passionately craved making a connection with the primal while the other two are about survivors who learned to use the rhythm of nature in their quest for survival.
Walkabout – Nicolas Roeg (1971)
When a teenage girl and her younger brother are abandoned in the Australian Outback by their deranged father, the outcome should be fatal, yet they meet a young Aboriginal boy on a ritualistic rite of passage – a walkabout. Neither understands the others’ language but they work out a method of communication and, using his traditional survival knowledge, the boy manages to get them safely to a farm. Typical to most of Roeg’s films, Walkabout is hypnotizing in that we are on this journey with them. The film contains a strong political message on native rights, but it is the interaction between the two innocents from opposing cultures in their quest for survival that is the highlight of the film.
Into the Wild – Sean Penn (2007)
When Chris McCandless graduated from college with honors in 1990, he decided his quest was to eschew all comforts and conveniences (and the obligations to which they were tied) and experience a life of basics in the wilderness. He gave away his savings, cut his credit cards and ID and set off cross-country without telling his family – or anybody – what he was doing. For two years he travelled, eventually ending his journey in a remote area in Alaska. Living in isolation in his “Magic Bus”, he hunts and sustains himself until, when his supplies run low and the romance of adventure fades, he realizes his life journey may be a short one. A variety of people he encounters along the way serve as a manner of schooling for him, which gives him the impression that life alone might just be a lark. His final lesson, however, is that nature has very simple and unwavering rules of law. In the confusion and delusion brought on by loneliness, hunger, he accidentally eats a poisonous plant and his fate is sealed. Some would call his fate a tragic waste; others would say he completed his journey, one that few would dare undertake or be capable of understanding. I fall in the latter camp – as I’m sure McCandless did – that a long life is no more a success than a short life is a failure. The trick is to complete it to one’s satisfaction.
The Revenant – Alejandro Iñárritu (2015)
There have been several written and filmed incarnations of the story of legendary Hugh Glass, but Iñárritu’s film focuses on how surviving the power of nature can force a man to grow out of human preoccupations like greed and revenge. It is a hard-won redemption loaded with brutal challenges, each providing a harsh lesson in priorities and punctuated with glorious beauty that is the wilderness. Both the director and DiCaprio ensured that attention be paid to the wild places that are rapidly disappearing. This leads to the only annoyance for me in the film – climate change forced the production team to film in twelve locations in three countries, and the changes in the ecology are at times jarring for the knowledgeable viewer. It’s a forgivable flaw, however.
Grizzly Man – Werner Herzog (2005)
Bears, again, but this is a whole other game. Timothy Treadwell had a passion for them, so much so that some could make a sound argument for borderline mental illness. His infatuation with grizzlies was extreme, but I don’t doubt it was genuine. Herzog’s documentary shows much of the footage Treadwell took of himself interacting with the bears, how he came to know individuals and their personalities, including that of the bear that simply did not care for his presence. The final quarter of the film is wrenching – Treadwell’s camera was filming when this particular bear finally put and end to the situation and attacked and killed both Treadwell and his girlfriend. A harsh ending to be sure, but what other sort of finale would a man like Treadwell deem fitting to complete his life? A fascinating, if uncomfortable, watch.
Never Cry Wolf – Carroll Ballard (1983)
The late Farley Mowat is a Canadian icon in the environmental movement and wrote several books on his various encounters. Ballard’s adaptation of Mowat’s semi-autobiographical account of a young biologist studying the relationship between wolves and caribou in the arctic captures the trust and affection that develops between the young man and the supposedly dangerous predator. It also calls attention to habitat loss very early in the game (the book was published in the early 1960s), and the threat to not only caribou and wolves, but to indigenous communities as well. The film works best portraying the developing relationship between Mowat (played by Charles Martin Smith in a typically charming performance) and the wolf pack, which goes from curious and amusing to the exhilarating, almost spiritual moment when the human strips off his clothes and races across the tundra with the pack, joining them in a the hunt (Disney’s first ever nude scene). Mowat’s goal was to change the erroneous mythological image of the “big bad wolf” and Ballard’s film manages to portray convincingly what readers may have found difficult to visualize.
These are but five films that explore the raw interaction between the human individual and the wilderness. Not all ends well in every case – or does it? Each portrays the evolution of understanding and respect, regardless of the eventual outcome. What are some other examples?