I never saw Frank Marshall’s Alive, the 1993 Ethan Hawke vehicle based on Piers Paul Read’s bestseller about the Uruguayan rugby team that endured a nine-circles-of-hell experience that began in October 1972 when their plane crashed on an Andean glacier en route to a match in Chile, and ended 72 days later with the rescue of 16 of the 45 passengers, all of them emerging with incredible tales of fatal avalanches and last-resort cannibalism. The script is by one of my favorite writers, John Patrick Shanley, but unless the director is Werner Herzog, I tend to be highly skeptical of Hollywoodized “based-on-a-true-story”/“man-against-sadistic-nature” tales (Sean Penn’s endlessly tedious Into The Wild made me feel like I was trapped in the Alaskan wilderness for two hours plus, awaiting rescue by an intrepid editor). Which is why it’s a breath of fresh mountain air to see director Gonzalo Arijón, a childhood friend of many of the survivors, along with his cinematographers Pablo Hernán Zubizarreta and César Charlone (Fernando Meirelles’ DP—who as fate would have it was supposed to be on that very flight but missed it!) lightly and patiently treading the same territory in Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains.
Through present day interviews with the survivors (who recount the journey to the camera as they retrace their steps to the Valley of Tears crash site) and ghostly, washed out reenactments mirroring the archival footage, Arijón and his team meticulously reconstruct a thirty-five-year-old nightmare that’s near-startling in its immediacy, as present in the eyes of the now middle-aged men as if it had all happened yesterday. Unnervingly, these passengers seem to remember every intimate detail—how the pilot crushed in the cockpit begged one youth to get a revolver and shoot him; how every time they flipped over a seat there was another body (“one dead, one alive” and so on), as if they survived solely to bear witness. The footage of the long deceased and the photos of those lost innocents are interspersed throughout, giving smiling faces to lyrical names. The ghosts from the past entering the frame in reenactments are in fact ever-present, hovering above Stranded from start to finish.
And what these men recount is nothing less than a Herzog-worthy Rescue Dawn-esque journey—just when you think you’re saved the next circle of hell opens. Planes buzz overhead but the pilots can’t see the survivors as they furiously wave. (The only time the men would be visible would be midday, a rescue pilot explains—which happens to be the worst time for a search and rescue operation.) The Valley of Tears itself is sun-drenched gorgeous in Arijón’s footage from the summer of 2006, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. One especially philosophical survivor explains that the “rupture” that began with the crash in those breathtaking mountains expanded, that they had to create a “new society”—one in which thoughts of cannibalism emerged pretty much simultaneously amongst the survivors. As the men mulled over the taboo notion like a tribe of council elders “the idea began to take root and grow.” Some felt it a duty to their families to survive, force-feeding themselves human flesh for the sake of mothers, fathers, and siblings. And yet it was also a religious ritual, nourishment from the “body of Christ” made tangible. “Had we reached a terribly sophisticated level of society or become primitive savages?” the philosopher ponders aloud to Arijón’s respectful lens.
After hearing on a working radio (that couldn’t transmit out) that the rescue search is called off, three of the survivors set off to seek help, one describing being overcome with superhuman strength, that he was “beyond normal.” It made no difference whether they died on the trek or in the carcass of a fuselage. Little did they know that the worst was still ahead (another circle of hell) when those that stayed behind heard a “stampede of horses” followed by a feeling of suffocation, of being buried in cement—an avalanche rendering their only safe haven a snow packed death trap! All of the survivors explicitly describe the moment when they stopped fighting, when they finally let go for the first time and felt the overwhelming peace of oncoming death. And all recount sensing their “souls pull back into” their bodies as they dug out. Yet tragically they were only making their way from one horrific circle to the next as they tried desperately to save the others buried alive around them—only to accidentally trample on bodies instead. “We were at the complete mercy of the mountains,” one man admits.
And that’s when the “pre-avalanche” society morphed into the “post-avalanche” one, as the men went from eating the bodies that only a designated few cut up and rationed, to being forced to eat the friends that had died right next to them. “The rules had changed again,” explains a survivor who later adds that the snow was as cruel as the sea—that they had not experienced a “shipwreck” so much as a “sea voyage in which the ship gets lost.” Ironically, this “trip” into Dante’s Chilean Inferno even included tourist photos. When several survivors trekked back to the plane’s tail to search for radio batteries they found, of all things, a functioning camera. The snapshots Arijón frames look like Auschwitz in the Andes. Is it any wonder the men blithely took bets on who would die first? Fate has one morbid sense of humor.
But of course by then individuality had ceased to exist. The men functioned as a “19-bodied organism,” one survivor explains. The philosopher adds, “When you feel hopeless, about to die, wait a little while. Doors you never saw will appear. Time brings the answers.” The true miracle is that even in the face of death these men were able to gaze awestruck at the beauty of the nature that had trapped them, felt downright privileged to be in its presence. As the few who set out for help finally reached the promised land, one describes the sense of having to knock on the door of civilization, to ask to be let in again. They were dead men, after all. (Of course, not to the even more cannibalistic newsmen. After the survivors found a shepherd who called in a rescue crew the blood-sniffing media came along for the ride as well!)
And yet the first thing these “men-gone-primitive” did was to gather the remains of the bodies of those friends whose flesh had saved them, and identify each so that their families would have closure. A survivor recollects that the rescue caused him to feel like he was being “pulled away” from something, which of course mirrors the “back to life” experience the men had had after the avalanche. Or maybe not. At the end of Stranded, with all those ghosts still lingering in every man’s eyes, one can’t help but wonder if the survivors in fact brought a souvenir of death itself back home.