“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us” – Joseph Campbell
True stories about women on a quest in the wilderness are having a nice moment in popular culture right now, but the story of turning to nature to find yourself is as old as time. From the Garden of Gethsemane to Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth (an examination of cultural mythologies around the world), turning inward to find one’s path makes for a great story.
“Quest” films pair a spiritual journey with an unusual natural environment, and this fall we are treated to two spectacular looking versions of an old tale: Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed in an adaptation of Strayed’s bestselling nonfiction book, Wild, which will be in theaters in early December. Tracks, a movie starring Mia Wasikowska that will soon be on DVD, tells a true story of an Australian woman crossing the outback with her camels.
“I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.”
― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Teens are likely to be particularly drawn to the characters in Wild and Tracks because of their potent determination to do something highly risky to satisfy their inner need to know. Even if none of us takes so bold a path to discovery, we all yearn for the quest. The message of each film is that the reward was the journey itself.
Readers of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling book, Wild, know the author was downright nuts to attempt to walk the entire Pacific Rim Trail. With zero training, and none of the right equipment, her quest feels more like a suicide mission – she is grief stricken over the death of her mother and battling drug addiction. Strayed’s zealous determination to do what she set out to do and her ultimate triumph over the physical and mental odds is remarkable both because she not only heals herself, but heals others as well. She goes onto write a nationally recognized advice column and, ultimately writes this popular book. Advance reviews of the Reese Witherspoon film are positive –the film is from the director of the Dallas Buyers Club and is being released on December 5.
Both Wild and Tracks owe significant debt to a classic film from 1977 called Walkabout.
Unlike Wild and Tracks, Walkabout eschewed the happy/Hollywood ending message that nature is a balm for society’s ills. Directed by Nicholas Roeg and set the the Australian Outback, the film follows two children who are abandoned in desert and learn survival skills from an aboriginal youth on “walkabout” – a required solo journey in the desert that is his culture’s required ritual for the passage from boyhood to manhood. The journey is about the self as much as it is about our relationship to the wilderness, and takes a decidedly pessimistic view of society and “progress”. Here is a link to The Criterion Collection‘s presentation of the film, which we highly recommend to stalwart viewers – it’s primal, frightening, and stark. A masterpiece of cinematic technique and storytelling, fine for high schoolers (and film-buff adults).
Tracks and a local outing
The film Tracks tells a strikingly similar tale about the Outback that, in fact, took place six years after Walkabout was released. An Australian woman, Robyn Davidson, set out to cross the Outback in 1977 with her dog and several camels. Many National Geographic fans (of a certain age) remember the stunning photo essay — specifically, the camel in the ocean with Robyn, at the end of her arduous trek — captured by a young man who accompanied her on assignment for the magazine. The film tells the story of their unusual relationship and chronicles her inexplicable quest. That film was released earlier this fall; it is rated PG-13 and will be released on DVD.
Inside Tracks // The Annenberg Space for Photography
The story of Robyn and her walkabout was also chronicled in a book called “From Alice to Ocean” and a show currently at The Annenberg Space for Photography’s Skylight Studio tells all three stories — the journey itself, the National Geographic essay and the film. (Skylight Studios is across the lawn from The Annenberg Space in Century City). The exhibit has a huge map tracking Robyn’s journey, and large digital screens that display images of the real character and the filmed version of the story. It’s a lovely example of a magical episode in two people’s lives that has endured for over thirty years. Stop by sometime between now and February 3, 2015 to find out why.
Other notable fictionalized “walkabout” films
A lovely film from the talented Carroll Ballard (Black Beauty, Fly Away Home), Duma takes place in Africa’s Kalahari Desert and tells the tale of a boy who was raised with a cheetah that he is determined to return to the wild. It’s beautiful film, made profound by the talent of the director. (Good for younger kids — PG rated).
A Far Off Place
An early Reese Witherspoon film bears an uncanny relationship to all these films. Titled A Far Off Place, it’s set in the gorgeous Kalahari Desert and is certainly inspired by Walkabout. The film is rated PG but contains upsetting murders in the early moments of the film, so read this review before showing it to your family. It’s Walkabout-lite, but fun to see Reese as she was starting out in the movies.
Ultimate Quest Sagas: Lawrence and Gertrude
Gertrude Bell in front of a sphinx and pyramids in Egypt with Winston Churchill and TE Lawrence
In a story about intrepid trekking through unknown parts, we would be remiss not to mention Lawrence of Arabia and the upcoming epic about Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert. Though each were spies (so on a different type of quest), the two characters fearless push into unknown territory for the sake of their country. We all know T.E. Lawrence, but Gertrude Bell was equally, if not more, influential in the Middle East, and Werner Herzog’s film will bring her to life in the form of Nicole Kidman. (Release date 2015). We recommend the book upon which the film is based and here is an article about her role in the creation of Iraq.