'Alive': A true tale whose essential truth is courage

January 15, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Would you? Really, would you? No, not thinking about it now, sitting at the breakfast table or on the bus. No, of course not, you wouldn't, you couldn't. It's beyond you. But imagine: You've spent three weeks on a mountaintop. Rescue is out of the quWould you? Really, would you? No, not thinking about it now, sitting at the breakfast table or on the bus. No, of course not, you wouldn't, you couldn't. It's beyond you. But imagine: You've spent three weeks on a mountaintop. Rescue is out of the question. You live in a kingdom of frozen death. Your body systems are closing down. There is no food around except for . . . the meat that was once your colleagues.

Would you?

That moral dilemma over violating the oldest and most universal of cultural taboos forms the centerpiece of Frank Marshall's compelling account of the ordeal of a Uruguayan rugby team that found itself violently deposited on a mountaintop in the Andes, lost and low on food but not low on corpses.

As surely everybody knows, they did.

And 16 of them walked off the mountain three months later.

Fava beans and a nice Chianti anyone?

"Alive" is the movie nobody wants to see that should be seen by a lot of people. Director Marshall is a long-time associate of Steven Spielberg, but this is only his second shot behind the camera. That's not bad, that's good. A more fluent director, someone for whom the medium was but a stream in which he went a-fishing, might have tried to do too much: His boss Spielberg would have turned "Alive" into a rhapsody in the key of flesh.

Marshall is instead clumsy and obvious and knows his limitations. But the lesser man knows enough to never get in the way of the thundering story, keep the narrative in sharp focus throughout (sometimes at the expense of character) and thrust ahead remorselessly. He's particularly good at evoking the physical sensations of ordeal: The movie is as harrowing as any in recent memory.

The story is all the more astonishing for its truth. In 1972, a chartered Fairchild hauling a load of healthy young jocks, a few parents and friends, became hopelessly lost as it tried to wend its way through the Andes to Chile. Then a mountain got in the way. The resulting plane crash is probably the most terrifying aviation disaster committed to film.

Initially, 27 survived the freakish event, as the fuselage, shorn of wings and tail, skidded giddily across a high snowfield like a runaway train. The injured died first, some the first night. A few others perished over the course of the event and one terrible night the whimsy of nature's cruelty reached apex when an avalanche gushed over the wreckage and smothered six or seven more. Finally the two most heroic made a last, desperate attempt to walk out of the mountains.

The movie is drawn from Piers Paul Read's authorized account of the events, also called "Alive," but it reminded me of the late Terrence Des Pres' brilliant book on concentration camp culture called "The Survivor."

Des Pres believed that there was virtually a gene for survival that some possess and others lack: The account of the Old Christians rugby team seems to suggest that. Some of the young men are weirdly inflated by the ordeal, becoming as good as they ever will be in their lives, focused, incredibly brave and resilient beyond description. They simply will not give in. Their sense of brotherhood and their belief in the virtue of any life over any death enables them to not merely survive but nearly thrive. Others lack that spark. They yield quickly to depression, become solitary, even sullen, and then give up the ghost without much of a murmur.

The quease factor is higher in concept than actuality. The soup's-on sequences are discreetly handled by Marshall; what we see is people eating what looks like Kentucky Fried Chicken out of the freezer. Not bad; you can get through it.

If the movie has a flaw, it's a minor one, and endemic to the basic format of the platoon film: after just a bit, dirty, bearded young men all look the same. It helps that the two leaders, Ethan Hawke and Vincent Spano, are not merely excellent actors but have bony, unusual faces; they're easy to key on. The rest soon disappear under a mat of grubbiness and suntan.

Still, for a movie I didn't want to see, I am pleased that I did. The truth about "Alive" is that it is not about cannibalism, it is about courage.

"Alive"

Starring Vincent Spano and Ethan Hawke.

Directed by Frank Marshall.

Released by Touchstone.

Rated R.

***

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