The full trailer for The Revenant came out a couple of weeks ago and it is, by a rather sizable margin, the most badass thing I have ever personally witnessed. And I’m including the time I caught a shark while fishing.*
So in honor of this incredible looking film (which had better finally win Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar or he’ll be so ticked off by his next movie that his forehead veins will pop out completely and run away to begin independent lives of wanton pollution/rebellious climate change denial), let’s take a look at some wilderness stories that you may have possibly missed– because they were too obscure, or you didn’t have the time, or because you’re lazy and I have to do everything for you.
*NOTE: Don’t worry animal lovers! Not only did I release the shark but that night I went out and got beers with it, and we boosted some cars, and years later I let it ride away forever on my motorcycle with my then-girlfriend who I loved very much (but who I admit was probably a remora. Her name was Janemora.**)
**Find your “remora name” by adding “mora” to the end of your first name. Like “Gregmora” or “Katemora Mara.” It’s fun!
Five Wilderness Stories You May Have Missed
5) Don’t Starve
This top-down 2D action-adventure game, released on PC in 2013 by Klei Entertainment, made a splash in the indie gaming world but flew under some folks’ radars due to its cheery, hand-drawn aesthetic. But people are stupid, and make no mistake: this game’s cartoon animation belies a brutally challenging experience of wilderness survival and razor-thin resource management.
As Wilson, a man thrust into the unknown by a nameless villain, the player must explore an enormous map while battling lethal foes and scrambling for sustenance, with zero help from any in-game tutorial or hints. The “tech tree,” of the kind found in strategy games, is uncovered only through dumb trial and error (and error, and error again…) And if you die, that’s it, pal— there’s no skipping to an earlier level or save point. In fact, there are no levels, nor any explicit goal (leastways not a readily discovered one…) beyond sheer, desperate survival, with a clock that ticks off the number of days you’ve managed to not get yourself eaten. It’s just like real life! In a sense, the game is a sophisticated throwback to the arcade machines of yesteryear. And yet it does not feel teenager-outside-the-movie-theater meaningless: the achievement of successfully weathering your first Don’t Starve winter, and seeing the accursed snow begin to melt at long last, is nothing less than exhilarating.
4) Manifest Destiny
This monthly ongoing comic series by writer Chris Dingess and artist Matthew Roberts, first published by Image in 2014, takes the famous Lewis and Clark expedition as its setting, and therein poses the vital historical query— “So like, what if there were minotaurs?”
Set on (and off, and on again) a boat ferrying Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their crew of volunteer soldiers (and conscripted “unsavories”) through unexplored nineteenth-century America, the comic introduces elements of the fantastic and horrific into an often-spun tale of nation building and discovery. Starring the scholarly Lewis and hard-nosed Clark (as well as a not-to-be-trifled-with, spear-wielding Sacajawea), this comic seems a sure lock for eventual adaptation into other media.
As of this writing the comic series has reached issue #18, and though it has touched briefly on the full, postcolonial import of its title— Captain Clark’s Indian war flashbacks and attendant guilt is a theme that warrants more panel space— there remains good potential for compelling narrative development. Consider getting current via Image’s always-slick collected volumes, then adding this one to your pull list, you big nerd.
3) Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
(Note: While not entirely set in the wilderness, enough of this story takes place among the barren canyons and desert vistas of the American Southwest and Mexico to warrant its inclusion here. Also cuz I said so.)
Cormac McCarthy’s magnum opus is gory, grim, stunning, and frequently cited as one of the best things ever penned about the American West. Reading at times like a prose-poem, the novel features an unnamed protagonist referred to only as “the kid,” a young wanderer with a violent streak who falls in with a gang of scalp hunters in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in the mid-nineteenth century. With the gang, “the kid” comes to experience firsthand the formative slaughter of America’s westward expansion, in the process meeting the true star (and, arguably, villain) of the novel, a man called Judge Holden— or more simply, “The Judge”— an enigmatic and intelligent brute who talks like a philosopher while carrying out unspeakable deeds. As gorgeously written as it is shocking, McCarthy’s finest achievement as a novelist is something that absolutely must be experienced… preferably before they wise up and make it a movie.
2) Dersu Uzala
This poignant little film is a somewhat more obscure (relatively-speaking) Akira Kurosawa joint— his first in any language other than Japanese. He made it in conjunction with the Soviet Union and, Cold War-era tensions notwithstanding, managed to pick up a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for it in 1976.
The story, based on a real memoir, follows a military officer named Captain Arseniev who is on an expedition to the wilds of Russia’s Far East, where he encounters the eponymous Dersu Uzala, a native woodland tribesman. After initially writing Dersu off as an unsophisticated nomad, Arseniev comes to admire and respect the man as a keenly intelligent and honorable guide, who saves Arseniev’s life on two occasions (one of these in particular, during a blizzard, makes for an unforgettable sequence.) Yet as the story develops it becomes not so much about Arseniev surviving the wilderness, but about Dersu surviving a rapidly changing modern world.
1) The First South Central Australian Expedition
One of the best short stories in one of the better collections by acclaimed fiction writer Jim Shepard (2007’s Like You’d Understand, Anyway), The First South Central Australian Expedition is the diary of one R.M. Beadle. Set in the early 1840s, and based on similar historical events, Beadle is the leader of a 12-man expedition to discover a speculated sea in Australia’s inland, for which purpose he and his crew are hauling a whole freakin’ whaleboat, in addition to a year’s worth of supplies, into the heart of the continent’s desert. Employing the written tone of the era, Beadle provides insight into his mind and personal history while chronicling this journey into the unknown.
Students of outback geography may guess at the dismal results of Beadle and co.’s enterprise. Yet as the diary unfolds, we gradually come to discover seas of emotion residing within the protagonist, and the childhood circumstances that have compelled the adult Beadle toward such a dangerous, doomed venture. This is truly what Shepard does best: eloquently adding layers of complexity to a character who might otherwise be overshadowed by the amazing facts and spectacle of their circumstances. The fact you get ten other stories along with this one in Like You’d Understand, Anyway? Icing on the cake, man.