Special to The History Place
History is replete with improbable wilderness survival stories. The 1820 sinking of the whale ship Essex by a sperm whale in the South Pacific resulted in a 95-day ordeal, during which the decreasing number of survivors first consumed their comrades’ corpses and finally executed a living shipmate and ate him. In 1884, the murder trial Regina v. Dudley resulted in two sailors, who survived the sinking of their yacht by eating a shipmate, being found guilty of murder; however, public opinion forced the drastic commutation of the sentence to six-months’ imprisonment.
Of more recent vintage, Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild depicted the adventures and misadventures of young Christopher McCandless, who gave away his savings and sought to become self-sufficient. Subsequently made into a movie, the two-year McCandless saga ends tragically, when he dies of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness.
Danny Boyle’s new movie, 127 Hours, recounts the harrowing five-day agony of Aron Ralston, a true solo-trekker in the Chris McCandless mold. In 2003 the 27-year-old Ralston entered Utah’s canyon country without telling a soul where he was headed. Tumbling into a crevasse, he was followed down by a boulder that pinned his right arm. After all other efforts to free himself failed, McCandless famously amputated his arm with a dull knife. Miraculously, after emerging dehydrated and in shock, he stumbled upon a party of hikers. They called in a chopper, which medivacked him out.
Danny Boyle, 2008’s Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire, successfully tackles the challenging chore of sustaining the tension across more than 90 minutes of what is, essentially, a static situation. James Franco, as Ralston, is simply brilliant. Although we meet Ralston’s friends and family in a series of brief, sketchy flashbacks – more Ralston’s hallucinations than coherent retrospectives – the real co-stars of the film are the boulder that pins Ralston’s right limb and the overpowering score by A.R. Rahman.
Of his compelling music, Rahman says, “The idea was not to make [the music] sad or self-pitying at all. The idea was to go to [Aron’s] frame of mind where he was happy and confident. Aron has this energy and charm about him, which inspired the movie. … [The music] could have easily gone into a dark zone where you feel uncomfortable sitting in the movie. Danny loves stuff which drives and has a love for surreal, futuristic sounding things.” Rahman delivers.
The vigor of the score will remind Boyle fans of Slumdog Millionaire’s upbeat tunes, which often belied the grinding poverty and despair that are that film’s back-story. Just as that film’s fictional hero endures an upbringing in one of India’s worst slums, as well as torture at the hands of the police – who can’t believe he’s legitimately giving consistently correct answers on the TV show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” – to become rich and famous, Franco’s Ralston drinks his own urine and breaks his own bones on the way to the ultimate test of his will, before he staggers out of his rock prison to sunlight and freedom.
I can only conclude that Danny Boyle is a believer in the fundamental heroism of ordinary human beings. He must be a genuine optimist, as well. With regard to Slumdog, the cynical among us might respond with incredulity. On the other hand, those who share Boyle’s apparent faith in humanity may have seen the Oscar-winning film as a metaphor for the rise of the “New India.”
127 Hours leaves little room for incredulity. The real-life Aron Ralston, whose 2004 autobiography “Between a Rock and Hard Place” is the basis of the film, has the stump to prove the truth of his tale. As Slumdog ended with a Ballywood-style song-and-dance routine, Ralston’s ordeal ends with still photos of the real deal, depicted with his wife and newborn son Leo, and trekking once again, this time on snow-covered slopes, climbing with an ice-axe strapped to his right arm. Just two years after his Moab, Utah, misadventure, Ralston became the first person to solo-scale all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000+ feet peaks.
127 Hours includes some grizzly scenes, as you might easily imagine. If you’re a wimp (like me), you can close your eyes and enjoy Rahman’s hard-driving score during those parts. Or you can just look on and suck it all up along with Ralston.
No matter which way you choose to take it in, 127 Hours adds a worthy chapter to the annals of survival that include such wilderness challengers as Burton and Speke, Ernest Shackleton, George Malory, and, yes, let’s include Chris McCandless, though he failed his final test.
Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images.
Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia lawyer and freelance journalist, has published 18 books, including Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education (Praeger 2009) and Handbook for Student Law (Peter Lang 2010).