Sunday, February 9, 2014

My Log 404 Feb 9 2014: Two films on the theme of survival against the odds make fairly gripping fare years after they were made

Français : Desert du Gobi - carte
Français : Desert du Gobi - carte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
(En): In mongolia (Gobi desert) (Fr): En mongo...
(En): In mongolia (Gobi desert) (Fr): En mongolie (Désert de Gobi) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Actress Saoirse Ronan
English: Actress Saoirse Ronan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sir Anthony Hopkins at Tuscan Sun Festival 200...
Sir Anthony Hopkins at Tuscan Sun Festival 2009 in Cortona, Italy.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Peter Weir at an independent film fes...
English: Peter Weir at an independent film festival in Kleparz, Krakow, Lesser Poland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In my almost ceaseless roving through the amazing variety of films available on Netflix, I have recently watched, more or less by happenstance, two films that feature men battling for their survival against the most extreme forces of nature. Oddly enough both were directed by Antipodean directors, Lee Tamahori, from New Zealand, and Peter Weir, from Australia, both of whom managed the difficult task of keeping up the interest in what is, after all, a one-note story of a group battling to overcome insuperable odds for survival.
The first of these  was The Way Back, a 2010 film about a group of six men who managed the near-impossible feat of escaping from a Soviet prison camp, deep in the gulag, and walking across the inhospitable wastes of Siberia towards Lake Baykal, where they somehow miraculously avoided being picked up by the authorities, then to the border with Outer Mongolia (a country also under Communist control), and further across the Gobi desert (their most severe problem), and so into Tibet, and thus into India.  On the map it looks like an impossible journey, and it might well be so. Because although the film is said to be based on a true story, told by a Polish prisoner of war whose a book he wrote claimed to have escaped from a Siberian prison and walked the 4000 kilometres to India, doubt has been thrown on the authenticity of this account.  The book sold half a million copies but the author was later shown to have been released from the camp in 1942. Later, in the United Kingdom, another Polish ex-prisoner claimed that the book was actually an account of his own experiences, on which story doubt has also been thrown.
Whatever, Peter Weir has succeeded in making a fairly gripping film about the escape. Six men escaped, one of them died on the second night out, and they were later joined by a young woman who eventually admitted she had escaped from a collective farm to which she had been condemned for re-education.
Five of the six were genuine political prisoners, people from various nations around Europe, but including an American, played by the familiar Ed Harris (whose film credits on Wikipedia number 77,  surely one of the busiest American actors of recent decades). The interest was maintained to a considerable extent by the sixth of the escaped men, (played by well-known Irish actor Colin Farrell), who, unlike the others, was a criminal who had managed to escape when the opportunity offered. He was a tough guy, created a lot of trouble until he settled into accepting the idea that they were a team all trying for the same thig. But when they hit the border to Outer Mongolia, he decided that freedom was not for him. He felt at home in prison camp, he stll thought of Stalin as a hero, and he took off alone to return to imprisonment in the Soviet Union.
Not long before this defection the escapees had agreed to accept the young woman who had connected with them by following them from a distance as they progressed through the countryside.  Astonishingly, the Irish actress, Saoirse Ronan, was  only 16 when he made the movie, giving an extremely moving account of her character. She at first lied about her story, telling the men something she thought would make them more likely to accept her, but the American, known to them all as Mr. Smith, realized her stories did not hold water, and confronted her with her lies. She admitted them, and henceforth the relationship between the girl and Mr. Smith was like that of a father and daughter. Eventually, in the Gobi desert, she couldn’t keep up, collapsed, died and was solemnly buried by the remaining five escapees.
Of course, in this sort of film there are always things which do not seem to ring true: for example, having made it through to Tibet, the escapees ---now down to three survivors, one of the others having died en route, and one, Mr. Smith, having decided to head for Lhasa, capital of Tibet, where he had contacts whom he was convinced would see him back to civilization  ----  still had to cross the Himalayas to reach India. Peter Weir scuffed over this final challenge, which surely must have been one of the toughest. But nevertheless two of the men did stumble into the high reaches of the state of India, where they were accepted, and eventually returned to their own countries.  The movie had opened with the arrest and interrogation of a young Pole, who defied the odds by escaping from the camp, but thereafter this man continued to wander the world for many years until with the fall of Communism he decided it was safe for him to return to his own country.
This, anyway, is the story presented to those of us who have watched this film for two hours and thirteen minutes, to its conclusion.
The second survival story was made much earlier, in 1997, but, if anything, it has more claim to authenticity than does the Weir film. This one is called, The Edge. It has the inestimable advantage of starring two expert actors in Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, around whose relationship most of the movie is built. Hopkins plays a billionaire who is also reputed by those who know him as a man who knows everything: in other words, he has a photographic memory which enables him to project an amazing range of knowledge about small matters as well as large. He has a glamorous model wife (played by the lanky Australian model Elle Macpherson), whom he has accompanied to Alaska on a fashion shoot, along with the Baldwin character, and some others. Baldwin is the photographer, and in the eco-tourism cabin in which they take shelter he spots a photo of a man who he says he wants in his shoot. This man, a friend of the cabin’s owner, is hunting some 20 miles to the north, so they set out in their single-engined plane to pick him up. On the way, they run into a flight of geese which destroys the plane, bringing it down into a lake from which the two principals and a third man emerge, with the dead pilot remaining in the lake.
Hopkins plays his character as a thoughtful, measured person, not given to making speeches but ready to use his memory of such survival skills as he has picked up in his reading. At an early stage he has asked Baldwin, “How are you going to kill me?” a strange question, given the circumstances, but a question that begins to seem irrelevant as the two men join in fighting off the challenge of a huge Kodiak bear that attacks them and kills the third man in the party. Having once smelled blood, the bear follows them and attacks again.  Hopkins keeps saying that they will make their way out of there, if necessary by walking. But his theoretical knowledge proves inadequate to the task.  A couple of times they are almost drowned as they try to escape the bear but by one of those miracles that one finds in this sort of survival film, they manage to overcome and even to kill the bear thus solving their chronic lack of food. This unlikely event is carried out with such conviction that we accept it. eventually they do make their way to an abandoned shack in which they find a rifle, some bullets and a stored canoe. Now, however, Baldwin takes the rifle and threatens to kill the billionaire, who has  discovered from reading a note he has found on the injured Baldwin, that the photographer has had an affair with his wife. Once gain, the billionaire’s cunning and perceptive knowledge of his surroundings leads him to manoeuvre the photographer in such a way that he falls into a bear trap outside the cabin. Baldwin is gravely injured in the fall, but Hopkins rallies around, gets him into a canoe, and takes him back to civilization, although he unfortunately dies on the way.

Once again this is a film that has been kept alive by the intensity of the script and directorial manipulation, and although only one of the three victims survives the ordeal it does provide a satisfactory ending.
Lee Tamahori was the director of the notable New Zealand film, Once Were Warriors,  an expose of the terrible condition of many urbanized Maoris living in New Zealand. He later made a successful career in Hollywood, but this seems to have been interrupted when, dressed as a woman, he propositioned an undercover cop in Los Angeles. However, he seems to be a resourceful man who has spent much of his adult life in the paradisical Stewart Island, the third of New Zealand's islands, only 26 miles across the wild, raging Foveaux Strait from my home town of Invercargill, on the south coast of the South Island. Here he apparently performed all sorts of odd jobs, from fishing to collecting seashells. It is in Foveaux Strait that the world's best oysters are gathered every year.
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