It was not like a shipwreck, one survivor explains. Rather, it was somehow closer to being lost at sea, the snow being just as unruly, oppressive and deadly a force. At first, some wondered if they’d awoken to find themselves in the hereafter, the vastness and blankness of their surroundings evoking some realm of heavenly purity, of desolate, austere beauty, and it was only the cries of agony, the tremendous, unimaginable suffering endured by all those who didn’t instantly perish that convinced them otherwise. This place they found themselves in was indeed very much of this world, but to listen to their testimonies you’d think they’d returned from a distant planet.
Watching Gonzalo Arijón’s Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains is an exhausting experience. And after you’ve seen it, the idea of telling this story in any other way, at least cinematically, starts to feel vulgar or insufficient in comparison. While there are well-staged and evocative re-enactments to help us visualize their narratives, so much of the film is comprised of now middle-aged men simply sitting, remembering, speaking—yet it’s absolutely riveting. Each of its subjects, articulate, vivid storytellers the lot, talk us through their memories of the incident, the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the Andes. Of the 45 people on board only 16 lived to see rescue some grueling 72 days later. Yet the fact that 16 survived, that any survived, is about as close to a true miracle as most of us will ever know of.
The plane carried the Old Christians, a rugby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, en route to a match in Santiago, Chile. They did not reach their ostensible destination, but the situation in which they found themselves would prove to be a defining moment in each of their lives. They shared numerous traits that one can’t help but interpret in retrospect as somehow essential to their survival: youth, nationality, physical fitness, education, class, an ethic of teamwork, and varying degrees of religious conviction. To this day they all live within a short distance of one another. The durability of their faith and sense of brotherhood would come to lend heightened meaning to their team’s moniker, seeing them through the most horrific and despairing depths of their 72-day trail. They had no outdoors training and were unfamiliar with the mountain conditions. One survivor describes how the crash gave him his very first contact with snow—which he immediately waded in up to his chest. They had little food, poor clothing, nothing to create heat with, and, despite there being two medical students among them, no medical supplies. They would eventually be forced to resort to cannibalism. Yet here, most of all, they took comfort in their religious beliefs, citing Christ’s offering of his flesh during the Last Supper as precedent and permission for the carnal communion they came to partake in. For all their lack of supplies, they did have a functioning radio—which meant that they were able to listen to broadcasts announcing that the search for them was called off due to weather conditions. The assumption was that they were surely all dead.
Many of us already know this story, through news reports of the day, through journalist Piers Paul Read’s 1974 bestseller Alive, Frank Marshall’s 1993 adaptation of Read’s book starring Ethan Hawke, or the recent memoir by Fernando Parrado, the survivor played by Hawke. But you haven’t heard the story in a way that even approximates the power and intimacy of Arijón’s documentary. There is a scene in which a man describes speaking lovingly to his wife’s corpse as it lay in the snow, which eventually swallowed her up altogether. Parrado and Roberto Canessa eventually set out to find help, despite having no idea where they were or in which direction they should venture. After 12 days, from across a river, they finally encountered a Chilean huaso named Sergio Catalan, who they could only communicate with by writing a note in lipstick, attaching it to a rock, and tossing it across the water. There is a scene in which Catalan describes Parrado and Canessa as literally smelling of the grave. No animal would approach them, he says. These are things you can’t invent.
Arijón’s task of having to work all these incredible stories into a two-hour whole itself must have been arduous. Zeitgeist’s new DVD supplying us with scenes left out of the final cut, some of which are so rich its difficult to imagine how Arijón could bear to lose them. But I think Arijón, who grew up with some of these men, was wise to focus on making the train of disparate memories as fluid as possible, emphasizing the collective experience, since what is finally perhaps most remarkable about this story is how utterly devoid of infighting conflict it is, how unlike any of the number of ruthless tales of survival we know from novels and movies. For all its appalling, infernal details, what we’re left with by the end of Stranded is, strangely enough, a testament to optimism, love, interdependence and grace in some of the worst possible circumstances.