Posted by Richard Harland Smith on July 3, 2014
Next to horror movies I’m a big fan of movies about survival, about people lost in some kind of hostile environment, who must rely on their native cunning and whatever tools are handy in order to make it out alive. These two very different types of movies have a lot in common: both are about protagonists who are tested, pushed beyond the limits of their abilities and, often, their understanding, who must adapt to present circumstances or die. Back before the downbeat ending became factory standard for the horror genre, fright films often resolved in problem-solving for the heroes. Just off the top of my head, movies like THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) and ISLAND OF TERROR (1965) become in their last acts siege scenarios, with the protagonists bugging in, barricading, and beating off, as best they can, the assaulting force. Survival movies and horror movies have a shared bloodline that can result in some glorious bastardy, such as RITUALS (1977), which marries the backwoods vibe of DELIVERANCE (1972) with the see-how-they-die enumeration of the nascent slasher subgenre (born the following year, for all intents and purposes, with HALLOWEEN.) Even after John Carpenter transplanted Gothic horror to suburbia, genre practitioners continued to set slashers in the woods – FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), HUMONGOUS (1981), JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981), THE FINAL TERROR (1983), to name only a few examples. But where survival and horror part company, for me, is the intention of the filmmaker. I like movies about characters who have a chance, who have a shot. Most slasher films reserve that privilege for the Final Girl, which means you have to sit through 80-odd minutes devoted to the deaths of people who don’t even know they’re in danger until a machete finds its way into their faces. And that’s no fun for me. I’m a big fan of process, of characters riding the learning curve, or falling off of it, and of the question these films ask us: how far could we go?
There has been a rush of survival dramas printed to celluloid over the past few years but the concept is far from new. I could point to earlier examples but one of the best from the Golden Age of Hollywood is THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), which finds its way into a lot of horror movie and fantastic film catalogs because of its sharing of sets and production personnel with KING KONG (1933) and by its employment of pretty gruesome imagery. Based on the oft-filmed Richard Connell short story (adapted also as A GAME OF DEATH , BLOODLUST! , THE SUCKERS , ESCAPE 2000/TURKEY SHOOT (1982), HARD TARGET , SURVIVING THE GAME  and THE HUNT , among many other titles), the film tells the tale of an adventurer (Joel McCrea) who survives a shipwreck and a shark attack only to find himself hunted like an animal by a Russian maniac (Leslie Banks), who occupies an island stronghold for the sole purpose of enjoying what is to him the ultimate thrill. THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME holds up wonderfully well at the distance of over 80 years because it hangs the drama on the hero’s abilities to both keep ahead of his hunters and cause them pain along the way. It’s bushcraft at its bloody best! Classic survival entertainment.
Equally worthwhile is John Farrow’s FIVE CAME BACK (1939), about a planeload of disparate characters whose aircraft nosedives into the South American jungle. Those who survive (among them, Chester Morris, Lucille Ball, C. Aubrey Smith, and John Carradine) the crash are forced into close company they would not have kept back in the civilized world, which brings true character traits to the surface, running the gamut from courage to cowardice, from altruism to self-preservation. Written by Dalton Trumbo, the movie rushes to an ending that is both life-affirming and surprisingly grim. A remake was hacked out by Farrow in 1956 but I’m telling you, if you want to live, avoid BACK FROM ETERNITY even though it has Robert Ryan in the cast.
Alfred Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT (1944) isn’t often considered a survival movie, primarily, and is remembered most widely as a cracking human drama that has the novelty of being set exclusively inside a lifeboat. And yet all the beats are here: the rogue’s gallery of survivors, the rationing of food and water, the personality conflicts that arise to make a difficult situation even worse, the stretching on of days without hope of rescue, the inevitable madness and poor decision-making, the rancor, the violence, and the loss of characters to whom we find we’ve become attached over time. Despite being known as the “Master of Suspense,” Hitchcock triumphs here by slowing things down to a crawl (or a bob, as a lifeboat is wont to do when cast adrift on the bounding main) and allowing its dramatic personae the grace of time out of time, a break from the war, and a neural space in which these individuals can face their individual prejudices and heretofore unquestioned contradictions. The whole of the movie hangs on the line “What do you do with people like that?” and muddies the morality equation by making the lifeboat’s most virile American passenger (John Hodiak) essentially ballast while the hated Nazi U-boat captain (Walter Slezak) plays savior. (Traditionally, saviors tend to take you where they want you to go.) LIFEBOAT more than earns its place at the survivor table by floating the belief that ideas cannot save the day when unsupported by action.
A great many westerns boil down to survival scenarios as well, which shouldn’t be surprising given the fact that the bulk of the genre is set in the wild. Though the story had been filmed a few times before, John Ford’s 3 GODFATHERS (1948) becomes at its midway point a classic survival tale — the chronicle of an outlaw trio (John Wayne, Pedro Armandariz, Harry Carey, Jr.) who find an expectant mother (Mildred Natwick) as they scamper across the desert ahead of a pursuing posse and help the woman deliver her baby… only to be left with the custody of the newborn after the mother dies. (Chester Morris, star of FIVE CAME BACK, had played the John Wayne part in the 1930 adaptation of the Peter B. Kyne novel, then called THE THREE GODFATHERS.) Like a lot of survival movies, 3 GODFATHERS has a secret agenda. It’s not really about the employment of survival skills so much as it is the transformative tale of how three societal parasites, who have lived only by the sweat of others, become worthwhile members of society in the act of having to work their way back to it while preserving the very meaning of life. Ford amps the tale’s religious ramifications to 11 in the last reel but even this iconoclast was moved by the sacrifice of the protagonists.
Reassurances are at a premium in LORD OF THE FLIES (1963, remade 1990), Peter Brook’s unnerving adaptation of the disturbing Nobel Prize-winning 1954 novel by William Goulding. Most of you should be at least familiar with the story’s broad strokes: a plane load of British school boys must fend for themselves when their aircraft crashes off the coast of an uninhabited atoll in the Pacific. While conventional order is established fairly quickly by the book’s most rational, fair-minded schoolboy, anarchy erupts as the boys’ essential humanity degrades into savagery. I don’t know that it’s Brooks’ film, per se, which has had the bigger influence on Western society than the source material but either way the phrase “Lord of the Flies” has found currency in our culture and invariably gets muttered at some point during almost any kid’s birthday party or playdate involving more than five children. The descent into savagery of a portion of survivorhood is also a key plot point of…
… SANDS OF THE KALAHARI (1965), which just edges out (for me, mind you) FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX as the plane crash survival movie of 1965. While PHOENIX is about adaptation to environment and co-option of available resources, KALAHARI is about man’s atavistic inclination towards primitivism. The curveball is that director Cy Enfield casts brutish Stanley Baker as his signifier of civilization, a reasonably macho individual incapacitated by injury following the crash of a passenger plane in central Africa. Taking point in his stead is big game hunter Stuart Whitman (in a role turned down by both Richard Burton and George Peppard), who strips off his shirt and uses his Alpha Dog druthers to chase off or kill off his fellow male survivors (among them Harry Andrews and Theodore Bikel) so that he can have the only female (Suzannah York) for himself. Mirroring Whitman’s brazen display of predatory prerogative is the presence of marauding baboons, who present to Whitman his greatest and final challenge as an apex predator. But all of these characters stay with me less than the one played by Nigel Davenport (pictured), a vaguely defined tag-along on the flight who, when the trappings of polite society have fallen away, attempts to rape York. Failing this, one expects him to revert to villainy… only to have him prove to be an unexpected (albeit failed) savior in the third act, trudging as he does through the desert wasteland to the coast of the Dark Continent, where he attempts to persuade the local authorities to follow him back into the desert. We never quite know his final fate but his pitiable desperation to help his fellow survivors is truly haunting, reflecting as it does his reclamation, his return to society (well, maybe) a better man than when he left it.
If we want to talk state of the art of survival films then our next stop has to be Cornel Wilde’s THE NAKED PREY (1965), which takes a tip, you might say, from THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME but adds quite a few wrinkles of its own. In colonial Africa, a white hunter is punished by an indigenous tribe (guilt by association, mind you) for violating aboriginal law and is made to run for his life. His pursuers are not after him for sport, however much they may enjoy the thrill of the hunt, but to punish him, with the caveat being that he can earn his freedom and his life if he can avoid their spears and arrows. (This isn’t stated explicitly, but understood.) The new angle is that Wilde is tripped naked first and sent out into the veldt without weapons or tools… he has to just run like hell and improvise along the way. The film has tremendously influential, inspiring such trial-by-0rdeal classics as A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970) and the Italian THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (aka SACRIFICE!, aka DEEP RIVER SAVAGES IL PAESE DEL SESSO SELVAGGIO, 1972), which in turn spawned a host of what are blithely called Italo-cannibal movies, which also took their cue from the speculation about explorer/art collector Michael Rockefeller’s unknown fate after his disappearance in New Guinea in 1961 — urban legend that was taken to its logical, sick-making extreme in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979) and CANNIBAL FEROX (1981). But anyway, back to THE NAKED PREY… it also holds up spectacularly almost half a century later, reducing as it does mankind’s struggle to basic elements and first principles, before ending on a hopeful note of the possibility of respect and understanding of people who otherwise seem to have nothing else in common.
Nicholas Roeg’s Outback-set WALKABOUT (1971) takes the existential inclinations of THE NAKED PREY to the next level. Instead of a seasoned hunter being turned out into the bush, it’s Australian children Jenny Agutter and (the director’s son) Luc Roeg, whose father has taken a rather roundabout approach to suicide, immolating himself and his auto in the back country and dooming his offspring to an horrific fate of every conceivable -ation in the book: privation, starvation, dehydration. Or so it would seem. The children’s chance encounter with a young aborigine (David Gulpilil) enduring a native rite of passage (the “walkabout” of the title) becomes their companion, showing them how to slake their thirst and treat their sunburn. Roeg’s adaptation of the 1959 source novel The Children (written by Donald G. Payne as James Vance Marshall) deviates widely from the original material, which doomed the aboriginal guide to death by influenza, contracted from the children he has helped save. Roeg’s film sidesteps the easy irony to hit on something more subtle and heartbreaking. While the Boy (Peter in the novel) embraces the concept of going native, the Girl (Mary) does not, instead preserving her colonial heritage and refusing to engage fully with her (arguably) uncivilized helpmeet. Mind you, she doesn’t maintain that reserve out of bigotry but because she clings, in her desperation, to what she knows and understands. In a haunting epilogue to WALKABOUT, which finds the Girl married and with children and living the dream in suburban Australia, she clearly wonders what her life would be like now had she stayed lost.
Equally influential is DELIVERANCE (1972), John Boorman’s adaptation of James Dickey’s classic nut-up-or-shut-up novel of the same name. Like the best of the survival subgenre, this film isn’t merely about staying alive against all odds, it’s about modern man learning to reclaim his primacy while maintaining society’s core values of decency and fair play. DELIVERANCE‘s footprint was set early on, leading to putative knockoffs like RITUALS and such made-for-TV wannabes as FAMILY FLIGHT (1972) and DELIVER US FROM EVIL (1973), which goes the extra mile of folding in the legacy of famed/unknown/missing skyjacker D. B. Cooper. DELIVERANCE furthered the idea of the wild as kiln, as crucible, a concept that RITUALS ran with by dubbing its isolated setting “the Cauldron of the Moon.”
While DELIVERANCE was about mankind and his uneasy relationship with the more elusive notion of manhood or manliness, RITUALS is about man’s unspoken debt to his brothers. The film pits a handful of big city doctors, out on an annual retreat, against an elusive Unknown Subject who seems intent on taking them out of the game by using what seems to be a crude understanding of medicine while leaving in his awful wake such totems as thirty year-old x-rays and a crudely fashioned caduceus, the symbol of medicine. Par for the course of many survival films, DELIVERANCE humbles (and hobbles) the character with the biggest ego while empowering a soft-spoken self-doubter; we would see this paradigm replayed time and time again in survival tales for the big screen. In RITUALS, the core principal is not machismo but mercy; stronger characters discuss leaving the weak and injured behind to better their advantage and characters routinely walk away, only to circle back as if unable to slough off their Hippocratic oath. The movie brings the curtain down on a note of inevitable melancholy, as the only surviving character sits on the very dividing line between civilization and the great unknown, either unable or unsure of which way to proceed.
To be continued…
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