5 Great Survival Movies That Prove It Pays to Be Prepared

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Long before human beings were living in high-rise apartments and ordering take-out, they were sleeping under the stars and foraging for roots and berries. Modern life affords so many comforts and conveniences it can be hard to imagine how any humans managed to survive under primitive circumstances. Without fur or feathers to keep us warm, teeth to attack our food or claws to defend ourselves, humans were definitely at a disadvantage. So how did humanity manage to survive long enough to build civilizations? The answer can be found in survival movies.

A survival movie can be grouped into a wide array of sub-genres: man vs. the wild, man vs. the sea, post-apocalyptic, and movies based on true stories. What they all have in common is a protagonist, or sometimes a small group of protagonists, who were cut off from civilization and must struggle against all odds to survive in a hostile environment. To make it through, they both need a compelling reason to live and the right tools to do so. To sum it up, they need to be prepared.

These five survival movies are not only great films, they also show how the right materials or relevant knowledge to improvise tools can make the difference between life and death. They also justify the importance of strong connections to other people when it comes to the human will to survive. If you enjoy gripping narratives, stunning visuals and a few great tips on survival preparedness, these five movies have everything you’re looking for.

1. Cast Away

Probably the most commercially successful among these survival movies, Cast Away was nominated for two Academy Awards and won its star, Tom Hanks, a Golden Globe in the best actor category. Its most beloved co-star, Wilson the volleyball, even won a much-deserved Critic’s Choice award for best inanimate object. A classic deserted-island survival narrative in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe, Cast Away tells the story of Chuck Noland, a Fed Ex executive who survives a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean and washes up on a small, uninhabited island.

Cast Away
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Paul Sanchez (Actors)
  • Robert Zemeckis (Director) - William Broyles Jr. (Writer) - Tom Hanks (Producer)

Chuck doesn’t have much warning that the plane is about to go down, so there isn’t time to pack a bag. However, he does have the good sense to keep hold of an inflatable raft a crew member dumps in his lap as they begin to lose altitude. As the plane sinks into the ocean he yanks the emergency cord, the boat inflates and lifts him to the surface. Later, when he finds a dead crew member washed up on shore, it’s clear that without the boat he would never have made it.

His survival depends on his ability to improvise tools from the materials that wash up on the beach. An ice-skate blade serves as an ax, a mirror becomes a dental tool and a broken Port-A-Potty becomes a sail for the raft he builds. Most memorably, a volleyball becomes a companion Chuck shares his experience with and is central to one of the most emotionally moving scenes of the whole film. Over the four years he’s stranded, Chuck’s will to live is strained to the breaking point. However, a picture of his fiancé back home and Wilson’s companionship keep him from giving up.

Survival Tips

Watching Cast Away, you’ll learn how to crack and open a coconut with a rock and how to start a fire by briskly rubbing a couple of woods together. Also, if you’ve ever thought you could learn to spear fish in a few days, think again. You’re better off spearing beach crabs and cooking them over your bonfire.

2. The Revenant

The Revenant is a grueling, beautiful and probably the most haunting among the survival movies. It tells the sort-of-true story of Hugh Glass, a 19th-century explorer and wilderness guide who is left for dead by a group of fur trappers after he’s mauled by a grizzly bear. Alone in the frozen and unforgiving wilderness, he has to travel hundreds of miles to reach the trading camp. This movie  won Academy Awards for best director, best cinematography and best actor, plus three Golden Globe awards for best motion picture, best director and best actor,

The Revenant (4K UHD)
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson (Actors)
  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Director) - Mark L. Smith (Writer) - Arnon Milchan (Producer)

The men who abandoned him took nearly all his supplies.  When they left, he’s so desperate and in bad shape to stop them. Luckily for Hugh, the antagonists left behind a canteen, flint and steel. Without the flint and steel to start fires, there’s little chance he would have survived in the snow and ice. He also spent a few years living in the Pawnee tribe. He learned important skills for surviving in the wilderness.

In Hugh’s case, it isn’t love that keeps him going. It’s hate. He thirsts for revenge against the man who killed his son. It drove him to keep going, despite his life-threatening injuries.

Survival Tips

In one scene, Hugh wakes up and checks a clever horseshoe-shaped fish trap. He obviously built it in the river the night before. To accomplish this, he performed a handy trick to know if you don’t have any fishing gear. In another scene, a Pawnee man builds a heated shelter using tree branches, a pelt and coals from a fire. Also, if you ever need to spend the night inside the heated shelter, remember to take your clothes off first with a dead horse to keep you from freezing to death.

3. Into the Wild

Based from the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild attempts to reconstruct the last two years of Christopher McCandless’s life before he was found dead in the Alaskan wilderness. The movie spends more time showing the protagonist hitchhiking around the American west, meeting interesting people and working odd jobs to support his lifestyle. His decision to “live off the land in Alaska” definitely makes this a survival movie.

Into the Wild
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Garden, William Hurt (Actors)
  • Sean Penn (Director) - Sean Penn (Writer) - Art Linson (Producer)

Unlike other entries on this list, Christopher McCandless chose to cut himself off from society and live in isolation in the wilderness. He even went into it with a fair amount of preparation, including months of exercise to get into good shape and a backpack full of tools, such as a machete, a rifle, fishing gear and a book on native plants so he could forage. Unlike previous protagonists, he didn’t feel strongly connected to others. He was estranged from his family and made a habit of disappearing in the middle of the night, when people he met became too attached to him.

Although he imagined he was well-prepared, Christopher didn’t have any real wilderness experience and it caught up with him in the end. An experienced hunter he meets working on a farm explains how to field dress game, but when Christopher kills a moose, the meat rots before he can smoke it. His lack of understanding about the way river flow varies across seasons leads him to get stuck on the wrong side of a large river so that he can’t reach town once his food supplies start to run out.

Survival Tips

Into the Wild is the only story in this list where the protagonist did not survive. Even so, there are things you can learn from it. For example, if you’re going to use a book to identify edible plants, make sure you read the whole book and know about any poisonous plants that look like the edible species. It’s also good to recognize that having the right tools aren’t always enough. You also need  the skills and experience to use them properly. Finally, he wrote down some hard-won wisdom while sick, alone and scared in the wilderness: “Happiness is only real when shared.” Good words to live by.

4. The Martian

Nominated for seven Academy Awards and winning Golden Globe Awards for best motion picture and best actor, The Martian was praised for its realistic portrayal of scientific problem solving and sweeping visual effects. It tells the story of an astronaut who gets left behind on Mars after a dust storm leads his teammates to believe he’s dead. Just like other survival movies, he must use the materials available to stay alive and eventually escape from the surface of Mars to be picked up by a rescue mission.

The Martian
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig (Actors)
  • Ridley Scott (Director) - Drew Goddard (Writer) - Simon Kinberg (Producer)

The stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, is probably the best-equipped protagonist on this whole list. It’s a good thing because Mars is perceived as the most hostile wilderness. With no oxygen, no water and no food to be hunted or scavenged, the red planet leaves little room for mistakes. Luckily, there are plentiful supplies from previous missions, including a habitat, a vehicle and camera equipment. The most troubling shortage is food. Mark has to use his knowledge about plants to grow a crop of potatoes to help stretch out his rations until he can be rescued.

Like other survival protagonists, he has to deal insanely of being completely left alone for more than a year. He talked to a camera about the things that happened to him as if someone is listening, even if it’s only in the future. He’s also able to use the available materials to set up communications with scientists on Earth. This connection to other people who are all working to help him survive keeps his will to live strong. He continues to have hope that he will be rescued.

Survival Tips

You probably won’t find many specific survival tips in The Martian, unless you find yourself in a situation where you need to produce water from leftover rocket fuel. However, there are good lessons about the way to approach survival in desperate situations. Taking stock of the materials and tools you have, staying calm and trying to come up with workable solutions will get you a lot farther than unnecessary risk taking

5. The Way Back

The Way Back is based on a memoir by a Polish prisoner of war who claimed he escaped from a Russian gulag in Siberia and walked 4,000 miles to freedom in India. While historical records indicate he never made the journey, an English officer based in Calcutta did claim he met with three men who claimed they had come from a Siberian gulag after the war. His story is corroborated by a translator who helped with the interviews. While the tale may not belong to the prisoner of war who wrote the memoir, an investigation by the BBC led the film’s director, Peter Wier, to conclude it belonged to someone.

The Way Back
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan (Actors)
  • Peter Weir (Director) - Keith R. Clarke (Writer) - Duncan Henderson (Producer)

The group of men do prepare for their escape, but because they are prisoners and resources are so limited, they can only manage so much. One of the escapees, a dangerous Russian criminal, was reluctantly allowed to join the plan because he has a knife. As he points out to the main protagonist, you need a knife to survive in the wilderness. After they pooled together their resources, they don’t have much except for bits of food, pieces of rope and scraps of cloth.

Most importantly, they have each other. They share all the lizards, frogs and plants they find to eat. One of them uses his knowledge of how to build a sundial compass to find the way to Lake Baikal, where they can fish along the shore as they travel south. Another is a good storyteller who makes the others laugh to keep their spirits up. A third is a good cook and makes the best of what they can catch and scavenge.

Survival Tips

Although quite a few of the original escapees die from exposure, thirst and starvation along the way, The Way Back is still an incredible story about the power of cooperation in desperate circumstances. In a survival situation, the most important resource is usually other people.

While survival movies shouldn’t be your only source of information about how to handle an emergency situation, they may be more instructive than you can imagine. Being prepared with the right knowledge, tools and experience can spell the difference between life and death. So can your connections to other people, whether it’s cooperation with others to build up knowledge and resources, or love and hate that powers your will to live.

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Katy Willis is a writer, lifelong homesteader, and master herbalist, master gardener, and canine nutritionist. Katy is a preparedness expert and modern homesteader practicing everyday preparedness, sustainability, and a holistic lifestyle.

She knows how important it is to be prepared for whatever life throws at you, because you just never know what's coming. And preparedness helps you give your family the best chance to thrive in any situation.

Katy is passionate about living naturally, growing food, keeping livestock, foraging, and making and using herbal remedies. Katy is an experienced herbalist and a member of the CMA (Complementary Medical Association).

Her preparedness skills go beyond just being "ready", she's ready to survive the initial disaster, and thrive afterward, too. She grows 100% organic food on roughly 15 acres and raises goats, chickens, and ducks. She also lovingly tends her orchard, where she grows many different fruit trees. And, because she likes to know exactly what she's feeding her family, she's a seasoned from-scratch cook and gluten-free baker.

Katy teaches foraging and environmental education classes, too, including self-sufficient living, modern homesteading, seed saving, and organic vegetable gardening.

Katy helps others learn forgotten skills, including basic survival skills and self-reliance.

She's been published on sites such as MSN, Angi, Home Advisor, Family Handyman, Wealth of Geeks, Readers Digest, and more.

Last update on 2024-03-03 at 07:02 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

1 thought on “5 Great Survival Movies That Prove It Pays to Be Prepared”

  1. Cast Away with Tom Hanks. What a load of crap.
    If he had gone to the western side of the island, the sunset side, he would have found any amount of stuff that gets washed up on the western shoreline of any island or country. There he would have found plastic bottle he could have used for water, floating rope from fishermen, rope from fishermen, maybe even a small boat or emergency lifeboat that got left behind or washed away from a large vessel. That eastern shore would have had any amount of stuff that he could have used to his advantage. I did not see that in the movie. Tom could have found floating material to make a better bug-out raft.
    Nope it did not happen.
    Thumbs down for the movie from me.


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