#TBT Review: Man vs. Wild – Films That Encapsulate the Wilderness


FullSizeRenderPreston Barta // Editor

Fascination with the outdoors began long before the boom and growth of Hollywood. Since its notice, the wilderness has been entwined throughout our cinematic history. Commonly, the role of the great outdoors in films has been adversarial, playing on the trope of man (as a race, not gender) against nature, while other times it serves as a striking backdrop for characters to excel in. It gives action a profound sense of atmosphere as well and as a great place for personal transformation, as in the new Leonardo DiCaprio-starring film THE REVENANT (read our review here).

Whatever the purpose, there are many films that have utilized the wild in sharp and intelligent ways. Here are a few noteworthy films:


Robbing Scorsese (GOODFELLAS), Kevin Costner won a slew of Oscars for this film, including Best Director and Best Picture. It also received a lot of criticism for its depiction of the 19th century Sioux life, which is the case of many films that include Native Americans. Despite that, it’s a deep and poetic film about a soldier (also played by Costner) making a life for himself in the wilderness of South Dakota. It touched on early conservation issues and mourns the over-hunting of animals by white settlers.
– Preston Barta

maxresdefault-1THE EDGE (1997)

There are stinging similarities between this film and THE REVENANT. The key ones being surviving on little and grizzlies. THE EDGE tells of a photographer (Alec Baldwin) and his billionaire employer (Anthony Hopkins) who engage in a battle of wits in the cold and rocky lands of Alaska. Like THE REVENANT, it highlights the extreme conditions of the location, including the climatic bear attack, and how the wild complements the savagery of man.
– Preston Barta

Legends-of-the-Fall-legends-of-the-fall-26634748-400-431LEGENDS OF THE FALL (1994)

LEGENDS OF THE FALL may not hold up to 2016 standards with its melodramatic tendencies, but I implore you to check your cynicism at the door. The epic scope is a marvelous exploration into the dynamics between a powerful father (Anthony Hopkins again) and his three sons (Brad Pitt, Aiden Quinn and Henry Thomas), which is all set against the lush vistas of Montana in the early 20th century.

All the drama aside (which is incredibly effective), the “legend” in question revolves around the middle son Tristan (Pitt) who has a devil-may-care attitude that dripped off of Brad Pitt circa 1994. In short, woman want him and men want to be him. As the story goes, Tristan touches a grizzly bear aged just twelve years and the fable takes off from that point. I really don’t want to give away many of the details of LEGENDS because it’s reminiscent of sweeping camp fire stories that are passed down through generations.

Director Edward Zwick keeps the sprawling story focused on man’s romance with the wild and the long lasting toll of being a man in the wilderness can take upon your humanity.
– James Cole Clay

depp-in-la-mancha copyLOST IN LA MANCHA (2002)

Well, this documentary isn’t your typical film about being consumed by Mother Earth’s elements. Given the well-documented difficulty of THE REVENANT’s production schedule, LOST IN LA MANCHA is a chief example that sometimes hell hath no fury like the aforementioned mother of the entire planet.

Eccentric genius (as most are) filmmaker Terry Gilliam was set to begin production of his adaptation of THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. The film inside of this documentary was as visually intricate of Gilliam’s past work that builds macabre world’s that could only come from the mind of a person who is in another stratosphere.

For the majority of the film, Gilliam and his production crew are over-budget and due to storms in the desert wreck their schedule we slowly see Gilliam’s decent into madness. His obsession propels the other filmmakers to work twice as hard with half the faith in their fearless leader. Not even superstar/cast member Johnny Depp could save this infamous production. For film fans this is one of the more succulent voyeuristic looks behind the scenes.
– James Cole Clay

rescue-dawnRESCUE DAWN (2006)

It’s pretty hard to discuss surviving the wilderness and not talk about Werner Herzog. In 1997, he made a documentary called LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY, which told the story of Dieter Dengler, a U.S. pilot shot down over Laos and captured by the Vietcong, eventually escaping through the jungle until being discovered. Almost 10 years later, and Herzog decides to make a narrative drama of Dieter’s story called RESCUE DAWN.

Dieter is intensely portrayed by Christian Bale, and rather than just tell Dieter’s story all over again, Herzog instead goes into darker territory with regard to the psychology of war. Along with fellow prisoners Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), there is a constant debate on the idea of escape, with Duane and Gene representing a personification of Dieter’s conscience. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that regardless of their moral dilemma, they have to escape or die. Only their escape is much bigger than they realize.

RESCUE DAWN uses the jungle to its advantage, as the lush terrain is merely another prison. Once the audience breaks out of the cell with Dieter and Co., the claustrophobia we feel with the protagonists lingers. It was one of the best films of 2006, and is a tale of survival that still holds up 10 years later.
– Jared McMillan

20140919-tracks-09TRACKS (2014)

In a day and age where we are constantly inundated with media and technology, we all have fleeting thoughts of reverting to ourselves sans the zeitgeist. However, would going to a minimalist life actually make us better, or could we even escape as is the intent and purpose? This is the goal of Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), who decides to traverse 1700 miles of desert in order to get away from the mundane cycle of urban life.

Robyn works in order to acquire camels that will help her on her trek, and the locals refer to her as “Camel Lady”. A chance encounter with an American photographer (Adam Driver) gains her sponsorship as well as notoriety, frustrating our protagonist as it goes against the purpose of the journey, which is met with incredible odds and devastating lows.

TRACKS has some pacing issues, but the fantastic cinematography, coupled with Wasikowska’s determined performance, make the film worthwhile. Robyn was tired of a life without meaning, so she places herself into a situation where survival either gives her that purpose, or is just providing a hopeless mirage.
– Jared McMillan

THE REVENANT opens in theaters tomorrow (1/8).

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.