‘A Walk in the Woods’ and the cinematic history of nature trips gone horribly wrong
American ultramarathoner Scott Jurek set a record in July for traversing the Appalachian Trail, covering the 2,189 miles in a jaunty 46 days, eight hours, seven minutes. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte take a considerably more measured approach to their similar trek in the new film “A Walk in the Woods,” based on author Bill Bryson’s 1998 memoir. As Bryson, Redford reluctantly takes on an old pal (Nolte) as his unlikely partner in a late-in-life attempt at the landmark path, which stretches through 14 states, from Georgia to Maine.
Played largely for laughs, “A Walk in the Woods” is a meditation on life and our relationship with our surroundings, but most cinematic journeys into nature are considerably more perilous. Here’s a look at films where the environment can wreak havoc on even the best-laid plans, whether the journey is solo, with a partner or in a group.
Going it alone: ‘Wild,’ ‘127 Hours,’ ‘All Is Lost’
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” A noble thought, but on-screen, the road less traveled can get hairy when traveling solo.
In 2014’s “Wild,” Reese Witherspoon earned an acting Oscar nomination and considerable street cred as a savvy producer for playing writer Cheryl Strayed, who tackled the Pacific Crest Trail on her own. Though the adventure helped Strayed leave behind bad relationships, drug addiction and dangerous sex, there is no shortage of challenges as she wends her way through the deserts and mountains of California to the forest of Oregon. In no particular order, Strayed overcomes ill-fitting boots, predatory males, bad food, rain and snow before discovering love, redemption and the kindness of strangers.
Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book “Into the Wild” was the basis for the 2007 Sean Penn film starring Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless, a naive idealist who ventures to the Alaska wilderness in search of truth, with a capital T. Like Strayed, McCandless encounters a steady stream of intriguing characters but ultimately meets a tragic fate, made more palatable by lovely songs from Eddie Vedder.
Anyone who has shopped for gear at REI knows that hiking can cost an arm and a leg. James Franco’s Aron Ralston finds that to be almost literally true in “127 Hours,” another true-story adaptation. Directed by Danny Boyle, it tracks the experience of Ralston as he is pinned by a boulder in an isolated canyon in Utah. Let’s just say, for the squeamish, he doesn’t take the easy way out.
Redford, of course, a longtime environmental activist, has plenty of experience as a loner in nature, including playing a 19th-century mountain man in 1972’s “Jeremiah Johnson” and being stranded at sea in 2013’s “All Is Lost.”
Bonding rituals: ‘A River Runs Through It,’ ‘Touching the Void’
Before teaming with Nolte for “A Walk in the Woods,” Redford directed a film deeply rooted in nature’s ability to forge relationships. “A River Runs Through It,” the 1992 period drama based on Norman Maclean’s Montana-set memoir, stars Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer as temperamentally different brothers who reach an understanding though their love of fly-fishing. And while nature is good to the brothers Maclean, an air of melancholy hovers as death inevitably arrives to collect a debt.
Taking along a buddy never seems to ensure safe travels. The 2003 documentary “Touching the Void” recounts Joe Simpson’s and Simon Yates’ ascent of Peru’s Siula Grande in 1985. Both men successfully reached the peak, but Simpson suffered a badly broken leg. With their survival looking bleak, Yates makes the excruciating decision to cut Simpson’s rope, and after presuming the downed climber dead, he left him behind. Simpson, however, managed to find a route down the mountain and safely crawled to base camp. No hard feeling, I’m sure.
In 1997, Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin went mano-a-mano in the survival thriller “The Edge,” written by David Mamet and directed by Lee Tamahori. Battling over bears and Elle MacPherson, the men engage in masculine gamesmanship, and alas, several people end up dead.
The more the merrier? ‘The Great Outdoors,’ ‘Deliverance’
If inevitable conflict arises between partners, engaging a group, or even family, for an outing does not make the wilderness any more welcoming. Death is not a major threat in the 1988 comedy “The Great Outdoors,” but it might be preferable to enforced time with in-laws. Written by John Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch, the film stars John Candy as a Chicago man who takes his wife and sons for a vacation at a lake in Wisconsin. No sooner are they settled in than Candy’s sister-in-law (Annette Bening) arrives, with family in tow, including her overbearing husband (Dan Aykroyd). Even water-skiing becomes a contact sport, and Candy is terrorized by a bear with a grudge.
The sound of “Dueling Banjos” can send chills up one’s spine thanks to the 1972 thriller “Deliverance.” Directed by John Boorman from James Dickey’s novel, the film stars Burt Reynolds, John Savage, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox as Atlanta businessmen who head into the wilds of northern Georgia ill-prepared for a rafting expedition. They encounter unfriendly locals and, yes, someone dies and another breaks his leg.
Mixing family and rafting turns out to be a bad idea in 1994’s “The River Wild,” directed by Curtis Hanson and starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon. Streep plays a whitewater expert with marital problems who thinks a family rafting trip on the Salmon River in Idaho will cure their ills. However, the unsavory Bacon and cohort John C. Reilly have other plans and turn the outing into a nightmare.
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