On October 13, 1972, members of the Old Christians Rugby Football Club from Montevideo, Uruguay chartered a flight across the Andes mountains for an exhibition game in Chile. The plane crashed into the high mountain peaks initially killing 16 and leaving 29 stranded in the wreckage. 72 days later, 16 survivors emerged from the mountains, emaciated, injured and nearly snowblind, but grateful to be alive. Their harrowing story of survival was told in Piers Paul Read’s bestselling novel, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors.
Frank Marshall’s ambitious adaptation of this story premiered in 1993, shortly after the 20th anniversary of their rescue, reminding the world of this astounding feat of courage and perseverance. Usually classified as a drama, Alive is an authentic recreation of this harrowing ordeal and one of the best examples of true survival horror ever committed to film. Fifty years after the crash, Alive remains an inspiring example of hope in the face of certain death and a perfect film to revisit during the Thanksgiving season.
Marshall has taken incredible pains to present the story with as much accuracy as possible. Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton star in Alive as Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa respectively, the two survivors who walked for 10 days through the Andes Mountains to find rescue in the valleys below. Few members of the film’s ensemble cast are of South American descent. However, many of the actors bear a striking resemblance to their real life counterparts. Marshall filmed in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia in conditions similar to the actual site of the crash. Parrado served as a technical advisor on the film and one survivor visiting the set remarked, “It’s like living the same life again.” While only those on the mountain could ever truly understand the horror of their experience, Marshall and Read have done their best to represent the spirit of their story. The names of those who died in the crash have been changed along with minor alterations to the story to provide a more concise cinematic narrative, but both retellings are unflinchingly honest.
Read’s book begins with plans for the trip and chronicles the various rescue missions organized by the families of those onboard. Marshall focuses solely on the survivors, beginning the story just minutes before the crash. Excited for their journey, the boys are having fun in the plane’s cabin, throwing a football, wandering the aisles, and even commandeering the intercom system. When the plane begins bouncing through an air pocket, the mood quickly deflates. The simple question, “Are we supposed to fly that close to the mountains?” begins a horrifying reenactment of the impact as the wings and tail each break apart midair, sucking luggage, seats, and passengers out of a massive hole in the rear of the cabin. After sliding down the mountain at a frightening speed, the wreckage finally slams into a snowbank leaving those still alive left to rescue their friends and survey the damage.
While the scene of the crash and the resulting triage is terrifying, Read’s book gives even more frightening details including the extent of Rafael Echavarren’s leg wound, Nando’s skull fracture, and the quick removal of a piece of the plane piercing Enrique Platero’s abdomen. Marshall shows the metal shaft coming out more or less cleanly, but in reality, Gustavo Zerbino (David Kriegel) removed the shrapnel along with six inches of Rafael’s intestines. Hoping to save as many as possible, they merely pushed as much of the organ back into the wound as possible, bound it with a shirt, and went back to the rescue. Another haunting anecdote involves Carlos Valeta who survived the crash uninjured, but wandered into the snow and disappeared off the side of the mountain.
Using the fuselage as shelter, those left alive begin to line up the bodies of the dead outside in the snow. As darkness falls, they huddle together in the -40% cold with only their light clothes and seat covers from the plane to keep them warm. It’s the first of many long nights spent listening to the wails of the injured and dying. With little more than wine and chocolate, the boys quickly begin to starve. Trapped on a glacier experiencing record snowfall, they can find nothing to eat and their bodies begin to break down. In his memoir Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, Nando recalls making a single chocolate covered peanut last for three days with a mere cap full of wine allotted for each day. Knowing that they will surely die without food, the boys hesitantly begin to discuss the unthinkable.
Despite this astounding tale of survival, the only detail many know of the story is that survivors of the crash resorted to eating the bodies of the dead. Read and Marshall describe the agony of this decision and show the solidarity that finally convinces the group to eat. Each boy decides that if he were to die, he would want the others to use his body for food. As devout Catholics, they parallel this act with the holy rite of communion and determine that God has given them a source of food, however gruesome it may be. After everything they’ve been through, to refuse this gift of sustenance would be to turn their backs on the miracle of their survival.
Read’s book gives a frank and somewhat upsetting description of this food source, from cutting up the bodies to the taste of different organs. But neither the book nor the movie ever identifies any one specific person whose body is consumed. This is something the boys themselves have vowed never to do, believing it would only be upsetting for the families of their fallen friends. Marshall makes a point not to sensationalize the cannibalism elements of the story and presents the awful task as a last resort only. The scene in which Canessa makes the first cut is more heartbreaking than it is horrifying. One by one the rest follow suit and become even more determined to survive with their newfound source of strength.
As if all this weren’t heartbreaking enough, 18 days after the crash, the fuselage is hit with a devastating avalanche. Striking in the middle of the night, they only survive because Roy Harley (Kevin Breznahan) hears rumbling with enough time to sit up. This is arguably the most terrifying sequence in the film and many survivors count it as the lowest point in all 72 days. Snow rushes into the cabin instantly burying the sleeping survivors. This is followed by a moment of pitch black silence. By the light of his cigarette lighter, Roy frantically begins to search for his friends in the feet of snow now filling the cabin. The next few minutes are absolute panic as each boy who is saved immediately begins to dig out another. Eight more die in the avalanche and for the next several days, the living are trapped with their bodies as the fuselage is buried by a raging blizzard.
Though the crash and the avalanche are terrifying, it’s the quiet moments of horror that are arguably more upsetting. Day after day, the boys are confronted with the near certainty of their impending deaths. They sleep every night just feet away from the bodies of their friends and family. Moments after the crash, team captain Antonio (Vincent Spano) realizes he is unhurt, but his seatmate has died upon impact. When searching for the tail, several of the boys reach a seat that had flown out in the snow. They turn it upright to reveal the body of their frozen friend. They gently remove his personal effects and say goodbye, the reality of death no longer shocking. Another body lies in the snow just feet away. But it’s also in these quiet moments of horror that hope survives. Having lost nearly everything, they begin to focus on what little joy they can find. Perhaps it’s in this frank acceptance of death that they’re able to hold onto their humanity long enough to survive.
It’s a dichotomy fans of the horror genre know well. Many of us watch scary movies in order to confront our most terrifying nightmares. By facing and accepting the worst things we can imagine, we’re able to remember the happiness and joy we do have. Each time someone dies, the boys find renewed strength and determination to survive. They stare into the face of death and find the will to keep going, providing a moving example of courage and gratitude. Though we are not experiencing the horror ourselves, watching it on-screen allows us to face our own darkest fears. When it’s over, we can more easily identify everything we have to be thankful for.
November is a time when many in the United States gather with their families and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. This holiday is not common in Uruguay and would probably not have been observed on the mountain, but 50 Novembers ago the real survivors were trapped in the fuselage desperately clinging to what few celebrations they could find. While trapped in the aftermath of the avalanche, Carlitos Páez (Bruce Ramsay) insists upon celebrating his friend’s birthday with a cigarette stuffed into a packet of snow. His claims that the next day is his own birthday followed by the birthday of his father is likely an attempt to find joy in the midst of such terrible despair. The sixteen men who emerged from the Andes still gather every December to celebrate a different kind of birthday: the day on which they returned to life after having been given up for dead.
Each Thanksgiving, my own family gathers to share a meal and enjoy each other’s company. As part of our tradition, we honor the memory of loved ones no longer with us and express our gratitude for everything we still have. It’s with this spirit of Thanksgiving that the survivors of the crash found the will to keep going. Each day, they honored the memory of their lost friends and family while embracing the miracle that they were still alive. The film’s final frame perfectly encapsulates this bittersweet gratitude. The camera circles the majestic, but deadly peaks of the mountain centering on a large iron cross to memorialize the dead. A final message reads, “This film is dedicated to the 29 people who died on the mountain and the 16 who survived.”