In 1859, my great-great grandfather survived eight days and nights semi-submerged in the freezing Southern Ocean clinging to the wreck of the steamship Admella. Thanks to his pluck, I was born and got to write a novel based on his life, From the Wreck.
How do people live through such terrible events? Is there anything we can learn from the survivors, just in case the same thing happens to us? If you’ve wondered the same thing, you could spend months watching documentaries, learning long-distance swimming and taking wilderness survival courses. Or you could sit on your couch, have a glass of wine and watch one of these movies.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – How good are the disaster movies of the 1970s? Towering Inferno, Airport, Earthquake: but the best of the lot of them is The Poseidon Adventure. On New Year’s Eve, an aging cruise ship is hit by a tsunami in the open ocean (technically impossible, but who cares) and capsizes. Just about everyone is swept away or tumbles to their death through the ship’s many upside-down levels, taking crystal chandeliers and Christmas trees with them. A plucky handful, led by an overly well-informed 12-year-old boy, a renegade preacher and a cop and his ex-prostitute wife, clamber their way towards the upturned hull, hoping to escape where the propeller enters the boat. But gravity and the seeping ocean are working against them.
Survival tip: smart-alec kids always make it through.
Lifeboat (1944) – after an ocean battle between a German U-boat and an Allied merchant ship, survivors are trapped on a lifeboat in open ocean. One of them – the only one with any sense – is a Nazi. Who gets the water? Who gets the food? Who gets thrown overboard for hoarding rations? Who is frightfully worried about the run in their stocking? Written by John Steinbeck, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this should have been a huge hit, but its moral complexities upset war-time audiences, who just wanted the good guys to win.
Survival tip: a mink coat won’t save you.
Das Boot (1981) – I had to stop this classic German movie four times to go outside and breathe the miraculous fresh air. If I’d watched it in a cinema I would have died of anxiety. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would get on a German submarine in the north Atlantic during World War II, but war correspondent Lieutenant Werner does and finds himself with the rest of the crew stuck at the bottom of the sea after an attack by allied planes. The sub’s hull creaks and strains under the pressure of millions of tonnes of ocean. The oxygen is running out. Water is pouring in. The engines won’t start. British destroyers cruise above. It’s very dark and everyone is very close to everyone else, very dirty and very scared.
Survival tip: I honestly don’t understand how anyone survives this.
Gravity (2013) – the exact opposite of Das Boot, in that there is a great deal of space. The problem, however, is the same – not enough oxygen. Gravity is a classic sole-survivor shipwreck movie, except this time the ship is in space. Dr Ryan Stone survives the destruction of her ship, the loss of her only companion, a lifeboat that catches fire, a lifeboat that runs out of fuel, extreme cold, loneliness and despair. A combination of determination, luck, training and resourcefulness gets her back to sweet, sweet dry land.
Survival tip: It’s OK to believe that George Clooney is in your room, talking just to you; in fact, it could save your life.
Alive (1993) – at the age of 13 I was obsessed with the book this movie is based on: the true story of a Uruguayan rugby team’s chartered flight that crashes in the Andes on the way to a match in Chile. The survivors wait for rescue, and wait, and wait, and wait. Eventually, they realise no one is coming to help them. They begin eating their dead team mates (a staple food of wreck survivors). They succumb to their injuries, or suffocate in a terrible avalanche that fills the plane wreck with snow. Eventually, three of them decide they will have to walk out over the mountains if anyone is to survive. The book is terribly written and the film is cheesy, but if you want an instruction manual in how to survive under impossible circumstances, you can’t go past Alive.
Survival tip: don’t wait for the rations to run out before you eat the pilot.
Honorary mention: Titanic (1997) – this survival tip is applicable to just about any disaster that’s ever happened, including climate change: be rich.
From the Wreck by Jane Rawson is published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan.