CINE-LIST: Five Must-See Survival Films

CINE-LIST: Five Must-See Survival Films

Clearly, the survival film is enjoying a renaissance. Think Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” Steve McQueen’s “12
Years a Slave” and J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost.” Meanwhile, YA survival
franchise “The Hunger Games” has its second installment, “Catching Fire,”
hitting theaters this weekend, while Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” makes its way
to screens in December.

We can take our pick of current survival films, but what are some classics of the genre worth revisiting? Cine-List has a few
ideas:

1. “Deliverance” (1972, streaming). John Boorman’s horrific adventure tale of four city men
getting eviscerated — literally and figuratively — in the Georgian wilderness
during a weekend fishing trip is one of the ultimate portraits of masculinity
in crisis. Despite being much parodied, the film’s lost none of its
wind-knocking gut punch. Burt Reynolds is in major beefcake mode as the
sleeveless, crossbow-wielding leader of the group, peopled by Jon Voight, Ned
Beatty and Ronny Cox. When the men are confronted by a heinous indignity at the
hands of backwoods locals, it becomes them against the wilderness (and the
wilderness’s inhabitants) as they are forced to paddle, climb, kill — and
squeal like a pig — for their lives. The beautiful “dueling banjos” sequence
at the film’s opening feels like a far-off dream, and haunting foreshadowing,
by the time the landscape has had its way with our unfortunate heroes.

2. “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972). Werner Herzog’s hauntingly raw voyage through the South
American jungle is one of cinema’s best films period, let alone in the survival
genre. Herzog’s turbulent muse Klaus Kinski seems lost in a ferocious Method
rabbit hole of his own devising, jittering about in the frame with
uncontrollable hubris as Spanish explorer Don Lope de Aguirre, who takes the
helm of a 16th century expedition to El Dorado when a series of
deadly accidents beset the group. The fiery production is now the stuff of
legend, with stories swirling that Herzog held Kinski at gunpoint, and
seemingly firmer reports that Kinski himself let fly a few bullets while on
set. Either way, one can feel the desperation of the film’s narrative and the
danger of its production married to mesmerizing effect. The synthy score by
German band Popul Vuh is perfect — somehow both ancient and modern.

3. “Lifeboat” (1944, streaming). Alfred Hitchcock’s fog, wind and rain drenched thriller, set
entirely aboard the small hold of the title vessel, is a terrific if less-seen
example of the Master of Suspense’s ability to tightly craft a film. Not a shot
is wasted, and Hitchcock manages to work nimbly within studio expectations
(giving Tallulah Bankhead a few glowing close-ups, for example) while also
experimenting with angles (a sinister low shot of Walter Slezak, as the
inscrutable German captain, rowing ominously). The cast is terrific, including
Bankhead as a glam and smart-mouthed reporter, William Bendix as a gangrene
sufferer and the silky-voiced Hume Cronyn. Though the script has its problems
in the final act, “Lifeboat” winningly shows what a survival film can do in
close quarters (as opposed to the sprawling expanses often used as setpieces in
the genre).

4. “The Woman in the Dunes” (1964, streaming). Sand has never been photographed so beautifully, or with
such menace. The survival film as Sisyphean struggle is channeled brilliantly
in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 masterpiece, which landed Oscar nominations for
Best Foreign-Language Film and Director. When amateur entomologist Eiji Okada
(“Hiroshima mon amour”) makes the mistake of spending the night in a hut at the
bottom of a desert pit, he doesn’t realize he’s been kidnapped. When he awakens
the next morning, the rope ladder has been removed and it’s only him and the hut’s
sole inhabitant — an otherworldly widow played by Kiyoshi Kishida — in the
dunes, faced with shoveling sand ad infinitum to keep from being buried alive.
Teshigahara’s film scores, this one written by Toru Takemitsu, straddle the
line between alien sci-fi and post-atomic horror. Here it creepily underscores the sweaty, passionate, dirt-encrusted gender issues at the heart of “Woman in
the Dunes.”

5. “Walkabout” (1971, streaming). There is a timeless quality to Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,”
not only because it’s aged well as a film, but because the Brit director
captures the ineffable, ancient nature of the Australian outback in a way both
terrifying and hypnotic. A young sister and brother are pitched into the
unforgiving desert following their father’s violent breakdown, and befriend an
aboriginal teen on his “walkabout” rite of passage, requiring him to survive
solo for a period of time. Sexual awakening is offset by the alluring yet harsh
topography of rippled dunes, blunt buttes and strange creatures in this 1970s
arthouse classic.

Clips, after the jump.

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Comments

max

Pleased to read Brian's references to SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, and the original FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX. All three make my top 10 list of survival movies. I would include the classics, FIVE CAME BACK, and the similar war-time story duo of Tay Garnett's BATAAN and John Ford's THE LOST PATROL. "KALAHARI's" final face-off between Stuart Whitman and the King Baboon is forever etched in my mind. WALKABOUT's Jenny Agutter shares that canvas.

Brian

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) is my favorite survival film–and the only one where the castaways get to eat a giant crab–AND a giant chicken! Its director, Cy Endfield, went on to make SANDS OF THE KALAHARI (1965), an interesting variation with no fantasy elements whatsoever. And let's not forget Robert Aldrich's FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1966). And on TV at the time of these last two films was the greatest survival saga of them all…"Gilligan's Island"!!!!

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