Stephen Arnell

The North Water: ten films set in the wilderness

The North Water: ten films set in the wilderness
The North Water (BBC2)
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BBC2’s mid-19th century Arctic whaling drama The North Water is earning critical praise for its gruelling depiction of seafaring life above the 66th Parallel.

Murder, deceit, starvation, shipboard homosexuality (willing/unwilling), cannibalism (or at least hints of it in The North Water), an irate polar bear and deliberately scuttled ships feature in the drama.

If you’re thinking that the scenario of The North Water sounds familiar, you’d be right, as these elements were all present in season one of The Terror (2018, AMC), which was finally shown earlier this year, also on BBC2.

The North Water stars Colin Farrell (evil harpooner Henry Drax) and Jack O'Connell (emotionally damaged ships surgeon Patrick Sumner) both have form with endurance dramas, having previously starred in The Way Back (2010) and Unbroken (2014) respectively.

Tales of exploration and harrowing journeys have always proved popular at the cinema, including Scott of the Antarctic (1948), The Red Tent (1968), various versions of the doomed voyage of The Bounty (1935, 1962 and 1984) and, on television, the Ch4 mini-series Shackleton (2002), which starred Kenneth Branagh as the titular Antarctic explorer.

Ten more recent motion pictures include:

Amundsen (2019) BBC iPlayer

Norwegian film director Espen Sandberg helmed this biopic as a tribute to one of his country’s greatest explorers, Roald Amundsen (1872-1928).

The grim visaged Amundsen (Pål Sverre Hagen) famously beat Scott to the Antarctic, supposedly duping the Brits who thought he was off to the Arctic.

He later disappeared after his failed attempt to rescue the Italian adventurer Umbero Nobile (who had crashed his airship) at the North Pole; events recounted in the 1968 movie The Red Tent, when Sean Connery played Amundsen.

By all accounts, he was a ‘difficult’ customer; the Norwegian magazine Morgenbladet said of the picture’s portrayal of Amundsen: ‘The polar explorer appears as something resembling the arsehole he was.'

The Aeronauts (2019) Amazon Prime

This largely overlooked ballooning drama is something of an odd fish - it’s a good, true-ish yarn but spoilt by the amount of dramatic licence taken.

A heavily fictionalised account of the altitude record-breaking 1862 flight of James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), the famed meteorologist, aeronaut, and astronomer, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Christopher Plummer.

Glaisher’s co-pilot on the flight was Henry Coxwell, not writer Jack Thorne’s invented Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). As Coxwell saved Glaisher’s life when he blackouts during the attempt, it does seem rather hard-hearted for Thorne to have air-brushed him from the picture.

If you’re afraid of heights, The Aeronauts will guarantee a sweaty-palmed viewing experience during the nerve-wracking scenes when the balloon begins to lose gas as the oxygen-deprived pair struggle to stay conscious.

Jungle (2017) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Jungle is one of those movies where you find yourself yelling at the screen when the characters are in the midst of making an obviously bone-headed decision.

Based on a true story, Israeli adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is in Bolivia with new friends when he is accosted by the distinctly dodgy Austrian Karl Ruprechter (Thomas Kretschmann).

Ruprechter convinces the three guys that he can lead them to a ‘lost’ tribe deep in the Amazon jungle. At that, any sane person would be saying ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and finding an urgent appointment they needed to keep. But as that wouldn’t make much of a film, the three (with some reluctance on the part of one of them) agree to follow the shifty Austrian. Things don’t work out too well, needless to say.

The Lost City of Z (2016) Amazon Rent/Buy

At first glance, you may think James Gray’s (Ad Astra) Lost City of Z is an old-fashioned Boy’s Own adventure, but it’s an altogether more challenging affair, thankfully, no Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).

The true-life mystery about the disappearance of explorer Percy Fawcett and his son Jack on their quest for the Amazonian city of the film’s title provide the basis for the picture, which covers Fawcett’s obsessive attempts to find the gold-rich Z.

Atmospherically shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en), the movie has some strong performances from Robert Pattinson (Fawcett’s 2nd in command Corporal Henry Costin) and Angus Macfadyen (explorer James Murray), but I’m afraid Charlie Hunnam proves as wooden as ever in the lead role of Fawcett.

Like his fellow Tynesider Sting, all Hunnam’s attempted accents are generally unconvincing, even (as with former Police frontman) when conversing in his native Newcastle patois. Sienna Miller has a largely thankless role as Fawcett’s neglected wife Nina.

Kon Tiki (2012) Amazon Rent/Buy

Viking blood runs deep in the veins of modern-day Norwegians, as the successors of Erik the Red, Leif Erikson and Gunnbjörn Ulfsson continue in the footsteps of their exploring ancestors. Along with Amundsen’s polar quests, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki expedition of 1947 proved their Nordic wanderlust is as strong as ever.

Co-directed by Amundsen’s Espen Sandberg, Heyerdahl’s journey attempted to prove that Polynesia was populated by Peruvians who had sailed over 4,300 nautical miles from the west coast of South America. Multiple storms and shark attacks fail to end the voyage, which the explorer successfully completes, proving that his theory is at least possible.

There are shades of Amundsen’s selfishness as Heyerdahl returns to Norway and divorces his first wife Liv. The reality, however, was far worse. He ended the marriage before the expedition, which she had helped organise. No wonder the director altered the timeline.

A handsomely mounted movie, Kon Tiki is a tad one note, but worth watching if you’re in the mood for an old school epic adventure.

Incidentally, Heyerdahl’s radio man on the boat was Knut Haugland (1917-2009), one of the real life ‘Heroes of Telemark’. Haugland made a documentary on the subject with Ray Mears in 2003.

The Ruins (2008) Amazon Rent/Buy

As with Jungle, The Ruins sees out of their depth American tourists convinced to curtail their Mexican beach vacation to help a young German traveller they meet find his missing brother. He was last seen helping on an archaeological dig at a ruined Mayan temple deep in the Yucatán jungle.

They reach the temple, there’s no sign of the brother and no escape from the ruins as the local villagers threaten to kill the group if they attempt to leave. They soon learn why.

The Ruins is a body-horror flick par excellence, with some disturbing scenes of evil sentient vegetation and a very grim ending, reminiscent of the classic British horror movie Dead of Night (1945).

Rogue (2007) SHUDDER, Amazon Rent/Buy

A highly enjoyable entry in the Crocodile/Alligator horror sub-genre (Crawl, Lake Placid, Black Water), Rogue is genuine edge-of-your-seat viewing.

A tourist river cruise in Australia’s Northern Territory goes horribly wrong when they encounter a giant saltwater river crocodile, who,  it appears, hasn’t had his lunch.

Greg McClean (Wolf Creek) handles the action well, although things become increasingly silly by the end. Early roles for antipodeans Radha Mitchell, Sam Worthington, and Mia Wasikowska, with Michael Vartan (Alias) as a US travel writer who’s out of his depth in the Outback.

Apocalypto (2006) ICON Film, Amazon Rent/Buy

Many critics who disdained Mel Gibson’s other directorial efforts admitted that Apocalypto was a highly accomplished action movie. Peaceful villagers are captured by a band of Mayan warriors, with the women to be sold into slavery and the men sacrificed to the gods to end the plague and famine afflicting their city.

A solar eclipse and his quick wits help villager Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) escape the city with the Mayans on his tail, the sadistic Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena) especially keen to catch up with his quarry. JP’s knowledge of the jungle and facility with traps turns the tables on his pursuers.

Apocalypto is shot entirely in the Yucatec Maya language, but within minutes of the movie beginning you forget the subtitles. The picture ends on an ambiguous note as Jaguar Paw and his rescued wife and toddler son witness the arrival of Spanish conquistadors disembarking on the beach.

If you enjoyed Apocalypto, you may want to take a look at Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1965) which has a similar theme.

Flight of the Phoenix (2004) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Although inferior to Robert Aldrich’s 1965 original, John Moore’s 2004 remake is a solid survival movie, and at 113 minutes duration is better paced than Aldrich’s picture, which ran to a bum-numbing 142 minutes.

A cargo plane is caught in a dust storm and crashes in the Gobi Desert (the Sahara in the 1965 film) - the disparate crew and passengers have a stark choice; stay in the wreckage of the plane and await rescue – or set out into the unforgiving wasteland in search of help. But…there is a third option, suggested by ‘aeronautical engineer’ Elliot (Giovanni Ribisi) – build a new aircraft from the remains of the old one, whilst the limited water and food supplies hold out.

Flight of the Phoenix’s cast also includes Dennis Quaid (the pilot), Tyrese Gibson, Miranda Otto (no women in the original), Tony Curran and Hugh Laurie.

Forbidden Territory Stanley's Search for Livingstone (1997) – Full Movie free to watch on YouTube

National Geographic’s 1997 made for TV movie slipped under the radar for many but was shot on location in Africa and tried to represent the story behind the famous phrase (''Dr. Livingstone, I presume?'') realistically.

Indeed, Aidan Quinn depicts New York Herald reporter Henry Morton Stanley as fame-hungry, violent, unconcerned with human life and casually callous, which makes sense considering his later association with King Leopold of Belgium.

The great Nigel Hawthorne stars as missionary David Livingstone, a good man, but essentially an amiable buffer who largely failed in his threefold ambition to end slavery in Africa, promote Christianity and find the source of the Nile.

Livingstone was said to have had a beneficial effect on Stanley’s less than pleasing personality, but later rumours that he was the inspiration for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) seem plausible. Veteran director Simon Langton also helmed BBC1’s now classic serialisation of Pride & Prejudice.