The wilderness can be one of man’s greatest allies or his biggest enemy. It can be a refuge for those seeking a greater purpose in life or a hellacious landscape that proves to be unconquerable for those unprepared for the rigors of the great beyond. That being said, it’s no surprise that wilderness themes have dominated the film industry landscape for the past several decades.
No matter who you are or where you come from, tales of man versus nature or man attempting to coexist with it are relatable and perhaps ingrained deeply into the human soul and psyche. For those looking for a source of inspiration, a heartfelt story, or an escape from daily life, the following films may provide you with a bit of proverbial shelter from the storm that has been the year 2020.
10. The Great Outdoors (1988)
Directed by: Howard Deutch
Starring: John Candy, Dan Aykroyd
Wilderness films don’t always have to be serious in nature or detail life-changing experiences — they can be downright hilarious.
The Great Outdoors proves this in spades as a comedy-packed adventure depicting how family vacations with in-laws aren’t always the easiest to deal with and can be flat-out miserable. But that doesn’t stop Chet Ripley (Candy) and Roman Craig (Aykroyd) from having their fair share of mischief and fun while the family tags along on a summer vacation in Wisconsin.
A simple plot centered around campfire ghost stories about man-eating grizzly bears, enduring wild and crazy water-ski rides, and exploring abandoned mines filled with dynamite offers a distinct divergence from all other films on the list, but grants enough laughs to be a guaranteed night of fun for the entire family.
9. America Wild: National Parks Adventure (2016)
Directed by: Greg MacGillivray
Narrated by: Robert Redford
It didn’t win any acting awards, but America Wild: National Parks Adventure is a fantastic documentary that outlines the creation of America’s National Park System.
The story begins with President Theodore Roosevelt’s serendipitous three-day trip through the Yosemite wilderness of California alongside revered mountaineer and naturalist John Muir. Roosevelt was so taken by this experience that upon returning to Washington, he decided to enact policy that would preserve the integrity and splendor of what he had seen. By the end of his presidency, Roosevelt had established federal protections on over 230 million acres of land across the country and provided Americans with the ability to enjoy the outdoors for the next century and, hopefully, years to come.
In addition to historical perspective, the film captures top-tier cinematography as it highlights the escapades of several wilderness explorers through some of the country’s most majestic parks, including Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Glacier National Park in Montana, and Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
Outdoor enthusiasts undoubtedly will be inspired by the film’s beauty and add a handful of bucket-list locations to explore. Most important, the film conveys why the continued preservation of our most majestic nature sanctuaries is essential and how they can play a fundamental role in all our lives.
8. Wild (2014)
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski
For those readers grappling with whether or not to take a leap of faith toward an epic outdoor adventure of self-discovery, I highly encourage you to watch and be inspired by the 2014 film Wild.
The biographical adventure focuses on the true story of Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon), a 22-year-old woman from Minnesota whose life turns into shambles after the sudden death of her mother, Bobbi Grey (Dern), from cancer. Her tragic loss becomes the catalyst for Cheryl’s descent into a downward spiral of self-destruction, eventually wrecking her marriage to Paul (Sadoski) and the promising future she once possessed.
With absolutely no hiking or outdoor experience, Cheryl makes a life-changing decision and embarks on an arduous 1,100-mile solo hike through the Pacific Crest Trail. Can Strayed overcome and endure the trials of the trail while simultaneously battling the demons of her past? You’ll have to watch to find out.
7. The Way (2010)
Directed by: Emilio Estevez
Starring: Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez
After hearing the tragic news of his son Daniel’s death while trekking the Pyrenees mountains on the Camino de Santiago, Dr. Thomas Avery (Sheen) travels to France to recover his son’s (Estevez) remains. Confounded with grief, Tom makes the hard choice to embark on the traditional Christian pilgrimage himself — vowing to complete it entirely to memorialize and honor his son.
Throughout his voyage, Tom is overridden with personal grief and struggles to open up to his fellow travelers, treating them with coldness and indifference. As their trek continues, though, Tom gradually opens up and shares the reason for his excursion. The group faces numerous struggles along the way, especially Tom, whose backpack containing his son’s ashes is stolen — leaving the purpose of his journey in absolute peril.
The Way is a profound teaching mechanism that underscores the healing opportunity nature provides us and how experiencing wholeness in nature can bring fulfillment to our lives. For those who are looking to take a deep journey inward, this film is a great place to begin.
6. The Call of the Wild (1972)
Directed by: Ken Annakin
Starring: Charlton Heston, Raimund Harmstorf, George Eastman
Modern movie fans will be familiar with the 2020 Harrison Ford-led version of Jack London’s 1903 American novel, but the 1972 version is an absolute classic.
During the Klondike Gold Rush, John Thornton (Heston) is struggling to get by in a meager existence in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Eventually he finds an Alsatian dog named Buck, who becomes the lead sled dog for Thornton and his partner Pete (Harmstorf), who make a living delivering mail and supplies to remote outposts and individuals in the region.
Existence in the Canadian wilderness is harsh enough, but it gets infinitely harder when Buck becomes a high-profile target for local scoundrels and malevolent prospectors with none worse than Black Burton (Eastman). The tale circles around the adventures and unbreakable bond of John and Buck that result in unthinkable tragedy.
The film is as rugged as the great outdoors itself but personifies the belief that the dog is truly man’s best friend.
5. The Lost City of Z (2016)
Directed by: James Gray
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Angus Macfadyen, Tom Holland
The Lost City of Z depicts the historical events of the life of famed British explorer Percy Fawcett (Hunnam), who undertook a series of adventures in South America attempting to find evidence of a long-lost city and civilization of the Amazon.
Fawcett’s prowess as an outdoorsman and marksman sparked the attention of London’s Royal Geographic Society, who recruited him to be the lead surveyor of disputed territories and valuable land between Bolivia and Brazil. After completing his initial analysis of the area, Fawcett is told by a local scout that deep in the jungle lies a city with immense treasure filled with people — an idea he originally scoffs at.
After he returns, his wife, Nina (Miller), stumbles across an ancient text that corroborates the evidence her husband had heard overseas — sparking the idea in Percy’s mind that the native scout’s tale wasn’t as far-fetched as he originally believed. This leads Fawcett on a second visit to the Amazon, but it is plagued with disaster and must be abandoned prematurely. Shortly after, World War I breaks out and Fawcett’s pursuit of the fabled city is delayed as he joins the war efforts in France.
When the war is over, word reaches the United States about Fawcett’s endeavors, which leads to an offer to fund another expedition in pursuit of “Z” by American businessman John D. Rockefeller Jr. Alongside his son Jack (Holland) and several friends, Percy hopes that the third time’s the charm. But they fall into tribulations of bewilderment and dread, leaving historians with more questions than answers to this day.
4. Alone in the Wilderness (2004)
Directed by: Richard Proenneke
Starring: Richard Proenneke
Ever wondered if you have the gumption to survive living in the wilderness? This documentary would be a good start to see whether or not your skills would cut the mustard.
Vastly different from the films mentioned thus far, Alone in the Wilderness is a self-made documentary that highlights the life of Richard Proenneke, who in the 1960s ventured into the Alaskan wilderness and carved a life for himself out in the Aleutian Peninsula for over three decades. The awe-inspiring flick chronicles Proenneke’s first year in the wilderness, showing everything from his day-to-day hunting adventures, planting and gathering food, demonstrations of bushcraft skills, and how he built his off-the-grid cabin.
Those interested in taking the road less traveled and who desire a self-sufficient, off-the-grid lifestyle will thoroughly enjoy the determination and ingenuity of one of modern history’s greatest outdoorsmen and conservationists.
3. Into the Wild (2007)
Directed by: Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt
Into the Wild is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction bestseller detailing the account of Christopher McCandless (Hirsch), a young man who became disillusioned with modern society. After disavowing a traditional lifestyle upon graduating from Emory University, McCandless donates his possessions and life savings and begins to hitchhike across the United States in pursuit of something greater than himself.
After a series of mishaps on his voyage through California, Arizona, and all the way up to South Dakota, McCandless winds up on the fringes of Alaska’s Denali National Park two years after his journey began. With minimal equipment and survival gear, McCandless is bullishly optimistic about his ability to thrive and coexist peacefully in one of the most beautiful but treacherous natural environments on earth.
Unfortunately, McCandless’ optimism is quickly vanquished after he realizes how hard it is to live in isolation, and his story turns into a dreadful struggle for survival. Not all wilderness adventures have a happy conclusion, and Into the Wild is no exception. While the film’s ending will undoubtedly tug on your heartstrings, it’s beneficial in providing viewers with a cautionary tale of trekking into mysterious elements without proper knowledge, training, or experience.
2. A River Runs Through It (1992)
Directed by: Robert Redford
Starring: Brad Pitt, Tom Skerritt, Craig Sheffer
Based on the semiautobiographical novella by Norman Maclean that bears the same name, A River Runs Through It follows the story of the Maclean family, living in an idyllic Montana wilderness setting against the harsh historical backdrop of World War I and the Great Depression.
The film focuses strongly on the personalities of and relationship between brothers Norman (Sheffer) and Paul (Pitt), alongside their father, John (Skerritt), a Presbyterian minister. While the brothers struggle to adapt to their father’s strict educational and religious upbringing, the three share a mutual love of the outdoors.
As the years go by the brothers drift apart, with Norman finding meaning in life through his educational endeavors, while Paul’s determination and grit as a muckraker bring him heaps of trouble. Eventually Norman comes back home to Missoula after college and attempts to understand his brother’s divergent path and way of life through their childhood bond of fly-fishing. Alas, Paul’s ruggedness leads to vexatious circumstances that put his own life and family at peril.
At its core, A River Runs Through It is a coming-of-age film. It’s a cinematic masterpiece and profoundly metaphorical and spiritual in nature. Moreover, it’s a must-view for anyone who feels the need to reflect on how they have gotten to where they are in life and, most importantly, where they are headed.
1. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Directed by: Sydney Pollack
Starring: Robert Redford
No list of wilderness movies would be complete without this film starring Robert Redford. Without question, Jeremiah Johnson is the greatest wilderness adventure flick of all time.
The ’70s-era film follows the chronicle of real-life Mexican War veteran John “Liver-Eating” Johnson, whose outdoor escapades forever etched him in American history as one of the Old West’s most revered and legendary mountain men.
Known for its famous overture, intermission, and entr’acte film style that was popularized in its day, Jeremiah Johnson takes watchers on a profound and precipitous journey that pits Johnson (Redford) against the harshness of the Rocky Mountains, the nation in which he served, and unfamiliar enemies in an unfamiliar landscape.