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Top Five Real-Life Survival Movies

01st November 2013 14:31:20

When we watch a survival film, we’re more invested in the plot and characters if it’s based on a real-life story. This is because a little voice in the back of our head tells us, “This actually happened”, making us wonder if we would survive in the same situation. We’ve compiled a top five list of real-life survival films that manage to get the balance just right.

5) 127 Hours








Without delving into the unthinkable goriness of the plot, this is that story someone told you about the guy who gets his arm stuck under a rock and has to cut it off to escape. This entire story, complete with giant boulder and creepy hallucinations, actually happened in real-life to Aron Ralston, and the film is a pretty accurate depiction of his comically-titled book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

Plot Believability: 10/10

This really happened and the film reminds us of this in the opening credits.

Character Believability: 8/10

Good and one of James Franco’s better performances, but could be rated higher for Franco fans.

Most Memorable Scene

The scene in which he breaks his own arm and severs it using a knife that would have trouble cutting through crusty bread.




4) Touching the Void








Touching the Void is narrated by the climbers that struggled through this ordeal. Simon Yates and Joe Simpson get into a spot of bother on their descent from the top of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, when they become stuck on the edge of a cliff. Simpson is hanging helplessly from Yates’s rope and Yates realises that he can’t pull Simpson up. He decides to cut the rope and save his own life.  But Simpson survives the fall and hops and crawls the three-day journey back to base camp, arriving mere hours before Yates is due to leave. Phew.

Plot Believability: 10/10

Come on, it’s a first-hand account of what happened and there’s a witness to back it up. What more do you want? Full points.

Character Believability: 3/10

As Simpson narrates the film, we’re not really invested in the actor who plays him in the reconstruction. The narration also tells us that they both survive, so it takes a lot of the fear and anticipation out of it.

Most Memorable Scene

It has to be the scene where Yates cuts the rope. We know that he isn’t going to die, but it’s still very tense.




3) Open Water







Open Water is roughly based on a true story about an American couple who were left behind on a scuba trip in the Bahamas. Although the film is set at the Great Barrier Reef, which is more than a stone’s throw away from the Bahamas, it is otherwise quite true to real life and doesn’t throw in too much gratuitous gore. The sharks play a big role in the shock value here, mainly because they are real sharks instead of the slightly ridiculous mechanical monsters of Jaws or the CGI nonsense of Deep Blue Sea.

Plot Believability: 7/10

Although not entirely true to real life, this did happen.

Character Believability: 10/10

A lot of the realism is created by the close camera angles and the incredibly authentic terror from actors Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis.

Most Memorable Scene

The main shark attack scene is somewhat horrifying, as the man is wounded beneath the surface and all you can see is a cloud of blood around the couple. But it’s what you can’t see that terrifies you.




2) Rescue Dawn







Rescue Dawn is based on the true story of Dieter Dengler, a German-American US Navy pilot who was shot down and held prisoner by the Pathet Lao at the start of America’s involvement in the Vietnamese war. The incarceration, starvation and mental torture that the prisoners experience is difficult to watch – and their starvation is made more believable by Christian Bale and Steve Zahn’s emaciated bodies. Both actors lost an unhealthy amount of weight for their roles- Bale lost 55 pounds and Zahn lost 40 pounds- showing an absolute dedication to creating a realistic film.

Plot Believability: 9.5/10

This is slightly below Touching the Void because it’s not a first-hand account, so it’s likely that a few things have been changed.

Character Believability: 10/10

The performances are immaculate and the weak and wasted bodies of the actors were perhaps worth it in the end. We just hope there was no lasting damage to their health.

Most Memorable Scene

The scene where Duane, Dengler’s companion, is killed. They are surrounded by farmers, not soldiers, and they are begging to be spared. One of the farmers snaps and cuts Duane’s leg, then the other cuts his head off. It’s frightening, tense and very realistic.




1) Into The Wild






Into the Wild follows the true tale of Christopher McCandless as he cuts up his bank cards, gives his savings to charity and heads out to journey and explore America. He ends up in the Alaskan wilderness and struggles to live on his own in the harsh reality of nature. McCandless realises that life is best spent with other humans and tries to escape the wilderness only to discover that he is now trapped by a rising river. In a pretty bleak and unfortunate ending, he accidently eats some poisonous berries, curls up in his sleeping bag and slowly starves to death.

Plot Believability: 7/10

This plot loses a touch of believability because we know that that he didn’t actually cut up his credit cards in real life. They used the cards to identify him. What else did the writers change?

Character Believability: 9/10

Emile Hirsch surprised everyone with his portrayal of McCandless . He played him perfectly, as someone thoughtful, smug and insightful – a brilliant performance.

Most Memorable Scene

When McCandless realises that he has eaten poisonous berries he is inconsolable. This is someone full of life realising he is going to die. It’s a very moving scene. 





Research and writing from Cotswold Outdoor.

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