5 Great Films about Adventurers and their Journeys based on Real Stories

Kon Tiki PosterI. Kon-Tiki (2012)   

Kon-Tiki” is an Academy Award nominated adventure film which tells the true story of Thor Heyerdahl (Pal Hagen), a Norwegian adventurer, who sailed around 5000 miles from Peru to Polynesia on a wood raft in 1947 to prove his point that it was possible for pre-Columbian tribes to populate Polynesia from the east. Thor gathers his crew and everyone assumes that they are on a suicide mission, especially since one caveat of the journey is that they build their raft like indigenous people of the past allegedly did, using no modern equipment. What I like most in this great film is that it has a soul. This is truly an inspirational voyage film with one likeable and relatable hero at its centre, some emotionally-moving scenes (Thor also has a wife Liv), and with some absolutely stunning “ocean” cinematography and vistas. Unlike previously reviewed “The Lost City of Z“, “Kon-Tiki” largely takes place where the main action is – the ocean, in this case, and there are a number of tense scenes involving storms and sharks. Moreover, there is some humour and sarcasm thrown into this story, which make for an even more enjoyable watch. 

Embrace of the Serpeant PosterII. Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

Nominated for an Academy Award, “Embrace of the Serpent” is a “must-see” film for any Amazon jungle enthusiast. This is the only film on the list which was only loosely inspired by a true story, rather than based on it, but the film does provide an unparalleled insight into the Amazon jungle, its ancient practices, people and wonders. This mostly black-and-white film has an almost historical, documentary feel to it as it tells of Karamakate, a shaman in the Amazon jungle, who encounters two outsiders-scientists – German Theo in 1909 and American Evan in 1940, who both look for yakruna, a mythical sacred plant. In 1909, Theo looks for the plant because he is gravely ill and thinks it is his cure. In 1940, Evan presents himself as a devotee of a plant life, but may have more commercial interests in mind as he tries to gain access to the place of origin of yakruna. Sometimes brutal, sometimes inexplicable and poetic, and often very honest about the impact of Europeans/North Americans in the region, the other great thing about the film is still that it kind of tries to uncover the riddles of the Amazon, including the ancient wisdom of the tribes who seemed to know the mysteries of life/death. So, there is talk of a more enlightening nature of dreams and demonstrations of transcendental experiences (through the taking of hallucinogenic drugs) that can lead to “ultimate” truth. 

Into the Wild PosterIII. Into the Wild (2007) 

Directed by Sean Penn, “Into the Wild” is about Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch (“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” (2016)) who went travelling after his graduation, before finally reaching rural Alaska in the early 1990s and going “into the wild” to live off the land. The film tells this interesting true story by reading entries from Christopher’s diary, which he kept throughout his journey and by also showing the impact Christopher’s “bizarre” love for nature had on his parents and his girlfriend. The result is an almost poetic, moving picture with the character clearly established as a completely unmaterialistic young man determined to “live in a moment” and appreciate the “true” freedom while living in the wild, relying only on himself for survival. On his journey, he also meets people who influence him, while he does odd jobs. The film benefits from the talent of such actors/actresses as Marcia Gay Harden (“Miller’s Crossing” (1990)), William Hurt (“A History of Violence” (2005)), Jena Malone (“Nocturnal Animals” (2016)) and Kristen Stewart (“Personal Shopper” (2016)), and it also has a memorable soundtrack. For similar cases, check out the true stories of Carl McCunn and Everett Ruess. 

Tracks PosterIV. Tracks (2013) 

It is impossible not to feel something of an awe towards Robyn Davidson, a young woman aged 27, who, in 1977, decided to cross Australia with four camels and a dog. From Alice Springs, Central Australia, to the Indian Ocean it is some 1700 miles and the conditions for tracking are not ideal. Part of the appeal of the story is the independence and liberation it suggests regarding any young woman’s life and her choices. “Tracks“, starring Mia Wasikowska (“Jane Eyre” (2011)) and Adam Driver (“Silence” (2016)), and directed by John Curran (“The Painted Veil” (2006)), is based on that true account and is a visual marvel, while its narrative is bitter-sweet and inspirational. As many others before her, Robyn takes this journey to find herself and rediscover true freedom, but along the way, also finds that the harshness of the Australian desert, including the lack of water and predators, does not make it exactly an easy ride. The story itself may not break any new grounds, but its quiet beauty and message may just leave you reinvigorated.

Wild PosterV. Wild (2014)  

Wild” is a cinematic account of Cheryl Strayed who went on a hike through the Pacific Crest Trail after a divorce in 1995. It is based on a memoir by Strayed titled “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail“, published in 2012. Reese Witherspoon, who plays the lead role, has gone quite a way from her trying romantic impersonations in such films as “How Do You Know” (2010) and “This Means War” (2012) to emerge in this film “Wild” as an outstanding actress deserving of her Academy Award nomination recognition. Amazingly, Witherspoon is also the film’s producer. The film itself documents the many challenges of a long-distance and dangerous hike, including the possible lack of food, water and shelter along the way, wild predators and difficult climatic conditions. One of the merits of this film is that it is as much a story of redemption and the reflection on one’s past life as it is about difficult journeying.

This list was compiled taking inspiration from my previous post of the review of “The Lost City of Z“. I used the word “adventurer” as a mid-point neutral word between an “explorer”, hinting at scientific discoveries, and a “traveller”, denoting someone who may be journeying for the purpose of “self-discovery”. The list also excludes documentaries and animations, and I focused on films released in the 21st century. Other recommended similar films are “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004), “127 Hours” (2010) and “Crowhurst” (2017).

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16 thoughts on “5 Great Films about Adventurers and their Journeys based on Real Stories

  1. Great picks! “Into the Wild” is such an amazing film. I’ve seen it multiple times and I’ve enjoyed myself every watch. Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack was fantastic, which makes me wish he did this more often.

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  2. I really loved Into the Wild. It was an amazing movie, beautiful but also very sad, and made even more powerful by the fact that you know that this really happened. Kon-Tiki has been on my to watch list for a long time, but I still haven’t gotten around to it. Great post! 😊

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  3. Cool topic and write up, DP. I was surprised how much I enjoyed ‘Tracks’. I’ve seen most on your list including ‘The Lost City of Z’. Have you seen Daniel Radcliffe’s ‘Jungle’ (2017)? That was an Amazon based-on-a-true-film. I liked most of it. I haven’t seen Kon-Tiki or Embrace of the Serpent. I’ll have to rent those.

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    1. Thanks, Cindy! I probably judged “Jungle” too early and unfairly because I read some very negative reviews on it and somehow decided to pass it by. There is also a book on the story, I think. I will need to see it now, thanks for recommending.
      I think Kon-Tiki and Embrace of the Serpent are really worth seeing, and would love to hear your verdicts on them too in time.

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  4. Kon-Tiki is a good film although they lost me when the crew showed better shark fighting skills than the better prepared guys from Jaws! 😛

    Kudos for including Embrace The Serpent too. A bit out there but a mesmerising experience.

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    1. I have to kind of agree with you there! At the beginning of the story of “Kon-Tiki”, they emphasised how this is a “rookie” team, the leader cannot really swim and almost no one has any sea experience, and yet they managed to accomplish some feats in the ocean with such ease.
      Embrace of the Serpent is really transporting, isn’t it? I didn’t think I would enjoy it that much.

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      1. I tend to find films like “Serpent” more about the experience and appreciating it than enjoying it in the same way I would enjoy a Star Wars film or a comedy, if that makes sense?

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        1. Totally. I myself will watch a “relaxing” action film over any lengthy and gruesome art film any day, but I also enjoy such films as “Embrace of the Serpeant” for the experience, as you say. Such films challenge you, take you out of your comfort zone, impart some knowledge, and in the end the time you spend on them is worth it. At least, I think so.

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  5. Awesome, I love these movies, but haven’t yet seen Kon-Tiki. I’ll have to give it a go!
    Into The Wild is great, and you’re right about the soundtrack. The book by Jon Krakauer is also pretty interesting.

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    1. I am glad to hear you also love these movies. I hope you won’t be disappointed with Kon-Tiki. It has something special going on, I think. The visuals, the main character, the story – it all comes together and works wonderfully; very inspirational, too.

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