The 25 Best Man Versus Nature Movies

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

In the new romantic survival drama The Mountain Between Us, Kate Winslet and Idris Elba play strangers on a small chartered plane that crashes into snowcapped mountain peak, far from civilization. They have to survive the brutal cold, the threat of starvation and dehydration, and a pesky little mountain lion. But can they survive each other? (Yes, of course they can. This isn’t Alive.) Though The Mountain Between Us may not be the most sterling example, its Man Versus Nature theme plays to the strength of a medium that can wordlessly and powerfully express the pitiless beauty of the wild.

Before getting into 25 better examples of Man Versus Nature films, a few ground rules: (1) The action has to take place on the planet Earth in recognizable conditions, so no post-apocalyptic scenarios (e.g. The Road), no speculative fiction (e.g. The Day After Tomorrow), and nothing set in outer space (e.g. Gravity); (2) There were no limits on how many Werner Herzog films could make the list, so I’ve gone with two, plus a documentary about him; (3) The Revenant will seem like a conspicuous absence, but rest assured that’s not an oversight. It’s a silly film that I’ve kept off deliberately. But if you’re looking for stories of mountain men fighting extreme temperatures, hungry bears, hostile natives, and/or each other, there are plenty more examples below.

25. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Nothing says ’70s Hollywood like a movie that has an overture, an intermission, and an entr’acte and still runs under two hours, but Sydney Pollack’s revisionist Western pumps up the iconography of a self-styled “mountain man” who enters the Rockies as a loner and leaves it as a legend. That jolt of mythological testosterone likely comes courtesy of John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn, Apocalypse Now), who co-wrote the script, but Robert Redford tamps it down with a soulful performance as Mexican War veteran who escapes society, only to take on more physical and emotional burdens than he might have imagined.

24. 127 Hours (2010)

While hiking alone through Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, Aron Ralston (James Franco) slips and falls down a slot canyon, catching his right hand and wrist in a boulder that keeps him pinned to the spot, unable to move or call for help. Working from Ralston’s book, 127 Hours succeeds most when it sticks alongside him through this excruciating predicament, which he survives by recording video confessionals and MacGyver-ing solutions to slake his thirst (hello, urine) and free himself (good-bye, arm). An entire movie of just James Franco jammed in a rock might have been better, but 127 Hours survives the clunkiness of its backstory.

23. The Edge (1997)

David Mamet’s obsession with masculinity usually comes out in the rat-a-tat dialogue between men confined to four-walled spaces, using language as their weapon of choice. In The Edge, a thriller set in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, Anthony Hopkins stands ready to kill a motherfucking bear. (His words, not mine.) Hopkins plays a billionaire locked in a vicious rivalry with a photographer (Alec Baldwin) over his wife (Elle Macpherson), but when a plane crash strands the two in the forest and a Kodiak bear starts stalking them, they set aside their differences. Though not without its pithy Mamet-isms, the script pares down the dialogue in favor of physical action. It’s only in the wild, away from the power and protection that his money provides, that Hopkins’s blue blood can discover his true manhood.

22. Wild (2014)

In a life defined by bad choices and personal setbacks, Cheryl Strayed made what seemed to be her biggest mistake to escape all the others: With little hiking experience, no companions, and an overstuffed backpack she dubbed “Monster,” she embarked on a 1,100-mile trek down the Pacific Coast trail between Mexico and Canada. Based on her memoir, Wild toggles back and forth between her hardships on the trail and a past that includes heroin addiction, a crumbling marriage, and the recent death of her mother (Laura Dern), who died shortly after a lung cancer diagnosis. The flashback structure stalls the film’s momentum, but Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Strayed draws on her special capacity for grit and good humor.

21. The Way Back (2010)

If Peter Weir’s Master and Commander was not primarily about the strategical confrontation between warring ships, then it would surely be a candidate for this list, given Weir’s strong portrayal of the physical hardship necessary to survive at sea. Few saw Weir’s follow-up, The Way Back, but he applies the same rigor to another period piece about brave souls staring down impossible odds, this time on land. During World War II, three men of various backgrounds (played by Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, and Ed Harris) escape a Siberian gulag and join a Polish teenager (Saoirse Ronan) and others on a 4,000-mile trek to freedom in India. The journey takes them through Siberian blizzards, the scorching Gobi desert, and the Himalayan mountains, and Weir registers the heaviness of every step.

20. Life of Pi (2012)

Poised on the border between a seafaring survival adventure and a tall tale, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel opens in southern India and features a spectacularly vivid and fantastical color scheme more common to Bollywood than Hollywood. The bulk of the film finds “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma), the 16-year-old survivor of a shipwreck that kills his parents, aboard a lifeboat with a hungry Bengal tiger as his traveling companion. The relationship between child and animal may have a whiff of anthropomorphism, but the Life of Pi presents itself as a spiritually loaded fable that exists on a much different plane than other films of its kind. Man and nature can have a harmonious relationship.

19. Dersu Uzala (1975)

“Man is very small before the face of nature,” says the title character, a gnomish Soviet Asian hunter, in Akira Kurosawa’s windswept ode to cross-cultural friendship and the humbling force of the natural world. Kurosawa’s interest in man’s relationship with nature would increase as his life and career headed into twilight, from the angry skies during the battle sequences in Kagemusha and Ran to the metaphorical storm that ends Rhapsody in August. But he never did a sequence like the centerpiece of Dersu Uzala, where the hunter and a Russian topographer are stranded in the middle of the frozen tundra as the sun sets. Without camping gear, they forge a makeshift shelter out of reeds as icy winds bear down on them — conditions that Kurosawa, shooting on location in Siberia, was not faking.

18. All Is Lost (2013)

The elegant minimalism of J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost starts with Robert Redford’s character, a yachtsman credited simply as “Our Man.” Though Chandor sprinkles in some biographical details here and there, the film has no stars other than Redford and very little spoken language, perhaps because Our Man doesn’t have a volleyball on board. All Is Lost concerns nothing more or less than a fight for survival: In the middle of the Indian Ocean, Redford wakes up to find that a shipping container has torn a large hole in the hull of his boat, and he spends the rest of the film trying to patch up the hole, pump the water from the cabin, and stay afloat long enough to signal for help. Chandor steps back and admires his resourcefulness, even as Mother Nature regards him pitilessly.

17. Touching the Void (2003)

It may not be as tall as Mount Everest, but the west face of the Siula Grande, a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes, is every bit as deadly a scaling challenge, even for the most accomplished climbers. In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates decided to tackle Siula Grande in the aggressive Alpine style, which involves climbing the mountain in one swift push with limited supplies, rather than establishing base camps along the way. Then Simpson broke his leg near the peak. The title Touching the Void aptly describes the pair’s constant flirtation with death, which director Kevin Macdonald expresses through meticulous, nail-biting reenactments.

16. Into the Wild (2007)

Based on Jon Krakauer’s exceptional book about Chris McCandless, a young adventurer found dead in the wilderness near Mount McKinley in Alaska, Into the Wild grapples with the antisocial impulse to leave civilization behind and strike out half-cocked into the isolating extremes of nature. Director Sean Penn sticks closely to Krakauer’s account, following McCandless (Emile Hirsch) from South Dakota to the Salton Sea as he picks up odds jobs here and there, and works toward his ultimate goal of striking out on his own in Alaska. Without underplaying the huge, preventable mistakes that ultimately cost McCandless his life, Penn stands in awe of the diversity and grandeur of the American landscape and the courage required to explore it.

15. Cast Away (2000)

Though Cast Away uses the experience of a workaholic systems engineer stranded on a desert island to take stock of what really matters, it’s really more a tribute to two things: the extraordinary will and ingenuity necessary for survival and the indomitable star power of Tom Hanks. (Okay, one more thing: the quality of FedEx packages.) When his plane crashes and he drifts ashore an uninhabited island in the South Pacific, Hanks’s Chuck Noland takes care of his practical needs by improvising useful tools from scattered cargo, and takes care of his psychological needs by befriending a volleyball he dubs “Wilson.” Hanks’s dignity and wit in the lead role is crucial in sustaining the film’s middle section, which would be wordless without Wilson as a sounding board, but Cast Away is equally strong off the island, when Chuck finds that returning to society has its own share of challenges.

14. Never Cry Wolf (1983)

Director Carroll Ballard might have several entries on this list if not for the word “versus,” because beautiful films like The Black Stallion or Fly Away Home are about the harmonious bond between man and nature, and the care and humility necessary to forge it. Never Cry Wolf gets to that place, too, but not before its hero, a government researcher sent to study predatory wolves in the Arctic, gets acclimated to the harsh conditions. This involves surviving a reckless drop-off in a lake, poking through wolf excrement, and, in the film’s most notorious scene, dining on a plate of mice. (With other mice looking on, accusingly.) But as with all Ballard films, Never Cry Wolf has a prevailing sense of wonder that speaks to all audiences, young and old.

13. Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)

So many films on this list are about ordinary people shaking off the drudgery of everyday life and answering the call of the wild, however unprepared they might be for its challenges. John Patrick Shanley’s woefully underrated comedy whisks its hero on a romantic journey from the fluorescent hell of a medical-supply factory (“Home of the Rectal Probe”) to an exotic island in the middle of the sea, where the natives drink orange soda and take Abe Vigoda as their leader. Tom Hanks’s Everyman image is perfect for a hypochondriac who finds new life after a terminal diagnosis, and Shanley treats his seafaring adventure with a light of touch. When a stranded Joe is in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” territory (“water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink”), Shanley pauses to appreciate the beauty of the moon and stars, even if those are the last things he’ll ever see.

12. Deliverance (1972)

The two most famous scenes in Deliverance involve hostile confrontations between four city slickers on a weekend canoe trip and the locals in north Georgia hill country: One is a banjo duel between Ronny Cox and an inbred kid, the other a scene where Ned Beatty’s character is sexually assaulted. With the construction of a dam looming over the townspeople, Deliverance lingers on the ugly tension that results from the encroachment of civilization onto their territory, giving John Boorman’s visceral thriller about survival and masculine bravado a strong cultural undercurrent. It’s also exhibit A for any argument for Burt Reynolds’s swarthy appeal as a leading man.

11. The Lost City of Z (2016)

At first, The Lost City of Z seems like another Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a story of Western conquerors heading into untamed Amazonia and paying for their hubris. And initially, that’s the case: In 1906, a British army officer (Charlie Hunnam) accepts an assignment to map out a border between Bolivia and Brazil in order to clear up a dispute over the rubber trade. But after passing through a gauntlet of oppressive heat, disease, poisonous snakes and piranha, and hostile indigenous tribes, the officer discovers evidence of a lost civilization and it changes his entire perspective. James Gray’s gorgeous adventure is neither Raiders of the Lost Ark nor a poetic reverie, but a combination of the two, staked on the human potential for change.

10. Letter Never Sent (1959)

Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov drew the attention of American cinephiles after his staggering Soviet-Cuban propaganda film, I Am Cuba, was rereleased in 1995. Key to Kalatozov’s style is his “emotional camera,” a constantly roving and sweeping and pirouetting wide-angle lens that forgoes human complexity in favor of a more heightened, hyperreal quality. With Letter Never Sent, Kalatozov turns his camera loose in the wilds of Siberia, where he follows four geologists who go searching for diamond deposits in a remote area. The good news? Diamonds aplenty. The bad news? The forest is engulfed in flame and rescuers can’t find them in the smoke. As summer turns to winter, Kalatozov captures the harsh beauty of the region while working through a love triangle involving one of the men.

9. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

No director is more closely identified with the “man versus nature” theme than Werner Herzog — he has two films on this list, and a third about him, and that’s just the tip of the Encounters at the End of the World iceberg — and Aguirre, the Wrath of God exposes the arrogance and absurdity of mankind attempting to conquer the elements. As part of an expedition of Spanish conquistadors in 1560, searching through the South American jungle for the fabled city of El Dorado, Klaus Kinski is the face of madness, scheming his way to leadership and soldiering on as starvation, disease, and hostile natives decimate the ranks. Aguirre is Herzog’s unsympathetic look at the conquistadors who were hailed as great explorers, but left death and destruction in their wake.

8. Grizzly Man (2005)

On October 5, 2003, toward the end of his 13th summer living among the bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled by a desperate grizzly looking for food after the salmon run had dried up. Treadwell left behind a treasure trove of video footage that documented his attachment to these animals, which he believed were protecting from harm. Though Treadwell’s beliefs run counter to Werner Herzog’s appreciation for the ruthlessness of nature — Herzog describes the bear’s motives as “a half-bored interest in food” — Grizzly Man offers an appreciation of Treadwell’s filmmaking and a tough yet sympathetic view of his naïve communion with nature.

7. Gerry (2002)

Two guys get lost in the desert. In terms of plotting, that’s all there is to Gus Van Sant’s minimalist landscape film, the first in a “Death Trilogy” that would include Elephant and Last Days. As if seeking penance after a long sojourn in Hollywood — his previous two films, the Psycho remake and Finding Forrester, were career low points — Van Sant tabled his commercial impulses and took inspiration from the long takes and mesmeric images of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr (Sátántangó). The early scenes of Gerry are surprisingly funny, as two big-city types (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) try futilely to improvise their way back to civilization. But the film gets more abstract as it goes along, until the American desert starts gaining the eerie qualities of an alien landscape.

6. Burden of Dreams (1982)

“It’s a land that God, if he exists, has created in anger.” “The trees here are in misery. The birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.” The legend of Werner Herzog was borne out of quotes like these from Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about the calamitous making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. But for as well as Herzog’s film articulates the visionary folly of a man bringing civilization to the primitive wilds of the Amazon River basin, the documentary expresses that theme more purely through Herzog’s own effort to tame the untamable and realize his dream. His attempt to drag a three-story steamship over a steep incline using a crude pulley system actually exceeds the efforts of his subject, who had the good sense to carry it over in pieces.

5. Walkabout (1971)

The title Walkabout refers to an Aboriginal rite of passage in which boys are sent off into the outback for six months and, if they survive, emerge from the experience as men. In Nicolas Roeg’s rapturously beautiful film, that journey is forced by an English father who goes mad and tries to kill his 14-year-old daughter (Jenny Agutter) and 6-year-old son before committing suicide. As the children make their way from civilization to the wild of the outback, they befriend an Aborigine teen despite the language barrier between them. Roeg stages this perilous survival story as a tangled and twisted road to Eden, full of adventure, self-discovery, and in the end, sorrow over innocence lost.

4. The New World (2005)

To see a Terrence Malick film is to be reminded that we live in the natural world, no matter how much civilization tries to sever that connection. When he emerged from a 20-year absence to direct The Thin Red Line in 1998, he posited war as a foremost a violation of nature, and those same sentiments prevailed in his follow-up, The New World, which suggests the founding of America itself as a dream undone by the ravages of men. Though the relationship between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) offers a hopeful union of cultures, the Jamestown settlement is a disgraceful mud pit of starvation, disease, and violence, built in defiance of a land that the Natives more peacefully inhabit.

3. The Wind (1928)

Victor Sjöstrom’s The Wind brought the silent era to a close with one of its greatest performers, Lillian Gish, braving a constant, blinding storm that’s both literal and metaphorical. As Letty, an impoverished southern belle who travels from Virginia to Texas for a new life on the plains, Gish plays a woman who endures the lust and hostility of neighbors and lives in fear of the dust clouds that constantly blow across her windows. Shooting in the Mojave Desert, Sjöstrom seizes the opportunity to exploit the brutal conditions for maximum dramatic and poetic effect. A scene where a white stallion shrieks against a wind storm has the force of Biblical prophecy to it, and Letty’s efforts to cover up a murder, only to have the sand creep over the victim’s hand, puts her guilt in striking visual terms.

2. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Set in 1845, Kelly Reichardt’s meticulous and agonizingly suspenseful survival drama follows three pioneer families who are are trying to make their way through the Cascade Mountains via the Oregon Trail. With limited supplies and water, there’s zero margin for error and they’re wholly reliant on the leadership of a grizzled guide (Bruce Greenwood), whose competence comes into question. In this context, seemingly mundane actions, like lowering a wagon down a rocky incline, become life-or-death situations. Working on an independent-film budget, Reichardt nonetheless obsesses over period minutiae, re-creating the authentic hardships of settlers in an unforgiving landscape.

1. The Gold Rush (1925)

Charlie Chaplin’s silent classic captures his Little Tramp character at his absolute essence: at once hilarious and melancholy, a pitiable figure who’s nonetheless as whimsical as he is desperately lonely. The Gold Rush depicts the Little Tramp as a prospector searching for gold (and romance) in the Klondike, and pauses for a handful of famous comic set pieces, like the dance of the dinner rolls, the teetering of his cabin off a cliff, and the boiling of his shoe, with the laces curling up like spaghetti. In every respect, the prospector’s situation is the picture of humility and desperation: Luckless, loveless, and starving, he quite literally hovers on the brink of disaster, but Chaplin keeps on doggedly pulling him back.

The 25 Best Man Versus Nature Movies