Cade's Corner: Survival and The Cinema

I love movies, always have. They not only entertain, but offer the chance for escape, imagination, motivation and relaxation. And who wouldn't love to "check out" for a few hours in this day and age?

There is also an opportunity to learn from what you're watching on the big screen, or on your flat screen at home.

So, when the folks at 4Patriots asked me to write about my favorite survival films, I couldn't wait. Below are my Top 10 favorite "survival films" in order of when they were released.

Now, please remember that there is a reason they call it the "entertainment industry" – and the films I'm listing below are not documentaries. That said, check them out, enjoy them and maybe pick up a thing or two should you find yourself in a life-threatening situation. Because art can imitate life.

1. JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972) – Robert Redford. A mountain man who wishes to live the life of a hermit becomes the unwilling object of a long vendetta by the Crow tribe and proves to be a match for their warriors in single combat on the early frontier.

This starts out as a "fish out of water" film where he has to learn the hard way how to stay alive. Starting a fire, catching fish, how to properly hunt to keep from starving, not getting your clothes wet, fighting hypothermia, use what you are offered like finding a Henry rifle, and most importantly not getting killed with an arrow. Love that he learns to stay downwind from potential dinner. He also learns lessons like respecting the "laws of the land" and know your enemy. And most importantly, SITUATIONAL AWARENESS.

2. FIRST BLOOD (1982) – Sylvester Stallone. A veteran Green Beret is forced by a cruel sheriff and his deputies to flee into the mountains and wage an escalating one-man war against his pursuers.

Now I'm talking about the first Rambo – not the follow-up films where Sly kills thousands of guys with exploding arrows. It's a great example of "some people you just don't mess with." Rambo uses opportunity from the moment he is cornered. Grabs his knife (everyday carry), a dirt bike and tarp. He evades pursuers by using land navigation and environmental features like an old mine shaft to survive, as well as basic booby traps and hunting techniques.

3. ALIVE (1993) – Ethan Hawke. A Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the snow-swept Andes is forced to use desperate measures to survive after a plane crash.

This film is based on actual events that many will find disturbing. But if/when you are confronted with a live or die situation, there will be difficult decisions to be made. "What is required to stay alive?" These individuals had to make that choice and the decision they made enabled several of them to live on.

4. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) – Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman. Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.

This film would never be considered in the survival genre but in many ways it's a film about surviving. It's not about how to start a fire or deal with hypothermia. It's how to endure a situation over "the long haul" and never giving up. Never quitting – which is the common thread among those I have spoken to who have made it out alive given impossible circumstances.

5. THE EDGE (1997) – Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin. An intellectual billionaire and two other men struggle to band together and survive after getting stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with a bloodthirsty Kodiak bear hunting them down.

This film addresses multiple realistic survival situations offering very sound solutions. Plane crash, hypothermia, bear attack, injury, group adversary. And if you can stomach Alec Baldwin for a couple hours, you will not only be entertained, but also educated.

6. CAST AWAY (2000) – Tom Hanks. A FedEx executive undergoes a physical and emotional transformation after crash landing on a deserted island.

This is another great example of how the human spirit to survive can overcome all else. Use what you can, given any life-threatening situation, and never quit. But don't underestimate the incredible challenge that isolation will create. Stay busy and don't forget your volleyball.

7. RESCUE DAWN (2006) – Christian Bale. A U.S. fighter pilot's epic struggle of survival after being shot down on a mission over Laos during the Vietnam War.

This is a film based on a true story and another example of the power of human spirit to survive. But the great takeaway from this film is how important it is to "stay together" as a team. A group is so much stronger than the individual. Some days you will be at a high point and some days you will be at a low. Help those with you when they need it and lean on those when you need it.

8. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) – Tom Hanks. The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the U.S.-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Capt. Richard Phillips in 2020 and in addition to being a great example of a leader, my takeaway from his situation was he never stopped mentally fighting. He kept "playing games" with his captors to eventually create an opportunity to survive this situation. The brain is the strongest muscle in the body and Capt. Phillips never stopped using his to ultimately survive.

9. THE REVENANT (2015) – Leonardo DiCaprio. A frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team.

In addition to being a beautifully shot film, DiCaprio's character finds himself in "the worst case scenario." Again, this film incorporates multiple useful survival techniques but ultimately his successful fate is based on one thing. I refer to it as a "trigger." It's the thing in your life that is most important to you. Consume yourself with this and you can walk through fire to get to it.

10. THE MARTIAN (2015) – Matt Damon. An astronaut becomes stranded on Mars after his team assumes him dead, and must rely on his ingenuity to find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Although this is clearly a fictional film, it incorporates many useful survival skills. Dealing with isolation, starvation, "out of the box" thinking – using what you have, and again that "NEVER QUIT" human spirit. And who knows? Someday in the near future you might find yourself on Mars.

Be a survivor, not a statistic,

Cade Courtley
Former Navy SEAL / 4Patriots Contributor


  • Jay Vines - May 12, 2024

    There werr many movies made that depicted some form of survival. But there was one movie made that was based on a real life event in which the arctic wolf’s very survival depended! The book that the movie was based on was, “Never Cry Wolf”, written by Farley Mowat. This movie, and the book also, has been one of my favorites for years! I used to show this to my Biology students as an example of one of the first attempts of the U.S. government at long term field research!
  • Stephane - October 19, 2021

    Do you know how to stop a tooth-ache? 4″×4″ of Weeping Willow bark in 120 degree F water for 3 minutes will give you PURE ASPIRIN without the hurt on stomach, kidneys, liver!
    Those movies are great! Yes, all of them, plus many others you may be unaware of that were produced in Europe and never made it to the USA!
    BUT, the best one would be Tom Hanks. It shows a NEWBIE having to learn. The others were supposedly aware and trained. Those rugby players in the Andes showed also, very shortly what those men had to do. Their troubles with the reality of their death or cannibalism! Great work.
    Remember though, those circumstances created men. Not movie goers!
    The movie goers will NEVER do that. FEW maybe! But it takes a lot of learning to achieve what RED DAWN showed!
    Do you know the plants? Do you know how to skin an animal? Deer? Not cut the musk gland that destroy the whole animal’s meat? A skunk? etc? Can you catch a fish bare handed? In a stream?
    Do you have your Bug Out Bag in your vehicle? Can you walk 100 miles with 120 pounds on your back? Can you make a “travois”? Do you have the “GOAL ZERO” solar packet that recharges your Ham Radio in three hours of sun? Can you make a “smokeless fire”? do you have ONLY WOOL undergarments? NO MAN MADE MATERIALS in your garments? Do you have a “sling shot”? A bow? Can you make a bow and arrows? Do you know what rock to use to make a knife sharper than a razor blade? Do you know how to make a rope with only forest products?
    It takes years to learn all that. How many people will survive?

  • Nancy Snell - March 11, 2021

    I Loved every one if the movies you listed except Revenant which I haven’t seen yet. I prefer Leo in Titanic, which has some survival tips, too, at least for K Winslet. Love great movies. How about Redford in All is Lost – to me, he was saved at the end. Thanks for the list.

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