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CINE-LIST: Five Must-See Survival Films

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood November 21, 2013 at 2:31PM

Clearly, the survival film is enjoying a renaissance. We as viewers have our pick of current survival films (think "Gravity," "12 Years a Slave" or this weekend's "Hunger Games: Catching Fire"), but what are some classics of the genre worth revisiting? Cine-List has a few ideas.
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Burt Reynolds in "Deliverance"
Burt Reynolds in "Deliverance"

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.

Werner Herzog's "Aguirre the Wrath of God"
Fandor Werner Herzog's "Aguirre the Wrath of God"

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).

The Woman in the Dunes

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.

This article is related to: Features, Cine-List, Classics, Video, Werner Herzog, Werner Herzog, Hitchcock, Alfred Hitchcock


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.