There is nothing that piques the collective human curiosity more than a disaster. Traffic slows down as drivers crane to view wreckage. The most talked-about news stories tend to deal with gruesome dismemberment and tragedy. There is something about Grand Guignol that fascinates the human race. Whether it’s imaging oneself in such a situation or being thankful to have escaped it, there will always be an audience for such fare.
Though fictionalized in the Ethan Hawke-led Alive (1993), the 1972 crash of flight 571 in the Argentinean Andes has rattled our collective conscious ever since its survivors came staggering out of the snow-covered mountains after 72 days. On one level, the basic story of survival is fascinating, but the lengths the men took to survive, including cannibalism, makes the account even more intriguing. Director Gonzalo Arijon befriended the survivors and 30 years later convinced them to tell their harrowing tale. There are no Hollywood special effects or big-name actors here. Just a group of men -- most of whom were only 19 years old -- opening up about a tragic event that shaped their lives.
Using a combination of archival footage, dramatic recreation, and talking head interviews, Arijon weaves a devastating look at this accident. Although the recreation scenes are somewhat awkward, the narration of the victims electrifies this evocative film. These men have had 35 years to live with the accident, and time has allowed them to be reflective and, in some cases, poetic about what happened up in the mountains. All are ecstatic to be alive, but guilt over surviving lingers still. One survivor asks early in the film, “What is the equation that underlies this sort of logic? Why you and not me?”
Just as the Donner Party continues to hold a special place in history, the cannibalism in Stranded remains a compelling issue. If pushed, would you eat the flesh of another human? Though Arijon does not dwell on the sensational side of the story, the men address the eating of their friends in a frank manner. Some try to come up with reasons for such a trespass, comparing the ingestion to Christly Communion. One simply says, “If I had died and someone else was sitting here telling you his story, I would be glad I had helped someone to live.”
Towards the end of the film, some of the men gather at the spot of the crash in the mountains. Most of the wreckage has sank into the glacier, only a window and some rubble remain. In a cathartic release, they are able to say goodbye to the ones who perished and exorcize their own guilt for surviving. In a narration fueled only by reminiscence, Arijon gets the survivors to share stories that are not only horrific, but also exciting and humorous. Indeed, rather than focusing on death and tragedy, Stranded is ultimately a life-affirming story, a tribute to the power of the human spirit.