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The Earthling
(1980)

Director: Peter Collinson   
Cast:
William Holden, Ricky Schroder, Jack Thompson


There are some places that I'm glad that I have never found myself stuck in, and I hope I never find myself in. Two such places are the Arctic and Antarctica  - from what I have gathered over the years from reading about them and from television documentaries, they are so isolated and far from anything civilized that I would feel uneasy being there. Though I may be reluctant to visit places like those two, I've stated several times in the past that there are still plenty of places in this big world of ours that I would like to visit before I die. I've mentioned the deserts of Spain, where hundreds of spaghetti westerns were filmed - scenic, and not that far from civilization. Those attributes are also why I would enjoy a trip to the deserts of the southwestern United States. Are there any other places that I would enjoy visiting that I haven't mentioned in my past writings? Well, sometimes I feel that I would enjoy a trip to New Zealand. After seeing movies shot there like The Lord Of The Rings series, the scenery there looks magnificent. Though I might feel a little uneasy being on such a tiny smudge of land surrounded by a big ocean. What about a larger piece of land, like say Australia? I admit that a lot of Australia looks attractive from what I've seen on TV over the years. But there's a problem that's evident just from looking at a map. Just about all of the population lives on or near the coastline, away from the spectacular wilderness in the interior of the country. If I wanted to see the wilderness, I would have to travel far from civilization, my safety net.

In other words, I would have to risk cutting myself off from immediate help if something bad were to happen to me while I was deep in the wilderness. I honestly don't know what would happen to me if that were to happen, but I have a sneaking suspicion I would be doomed. I did not always think this way. When I was much younger than I am now, I considered myself prepared for any bad situation that could come up. Being a big reader, I had read plenty of survival tips in many books, and I felt I could rely on my knowledge to get me out of the wilderness if I were stuck in it. Then one day in grade seven, my confidence was shattered. One day in school, several youths about ten years older than I was came to our class. They divided us into groups and gave us the following situation to think about: Your class is on a bus trip in the desert off the main roads. The bus gets into an accident and the driver dies, and there's no working radio to call for help. Do you hike the twenty miles back to civilization, or will you stay with the wrecked bus for help? Well, as they watched us, we got to discussing the situation. I remember that in my group, I spouted off my survival knowledge. Hike out, I said! You can get water from cacti, you can hike during the cool night instead of the hot day, and you can use the stars to navigate to civilization. Well, in part due to my arguments, our group decided that we would hike out. When all the groups had made their decision, the visitors to our class told us that those who stayed with the bus would have lived, and those who hiked out would have died.

I remember that my first reaction to this piece of news was outrage. I couldn't believe that everything about survival I had read in books over the years to that point was supposedly wrong. Over the next few days, I continued thinking in a state of disbelief whenever my thoughts recalled that day in the The Earthlingclassroom. But as time went on, a new thought started to form in my mind and get bigger and bigger. Maybe I was wrong, and maybe I would die in the wilderness. After all, I had just read those survival tips, and not actually put them to practice in the wilderness. These troubling thoughts continued to come up in my mind a number of times during the subsequent years, and they came up strong recently when I found a copy of the movie The Earthling in a thrift store. It is a movie that focuses on wilderness survival, and not only does it take place in Australia, it's a movie by Australians (with some American involvement.) Researching the movie before watching it, I asked Lyz of the fabulous movie site And You Call Yourself A Scientist! if she could give me an Australian perspective of the movie. She didn't have much information (apparently the movie has fallen off the radar even in her country), but she told me that it was made during a period of Australian coproductions that frequently used American actors for star power. She also told me that the movie got some ghoulish notice because the director died of cancer just after the movie's release, which is what Holden's character is also suffering from in the movie.

My revealing the fact that Holden's character is dying is not a real spoiler, by the way - the movie makes it clear in the first few minutes that the character Holden plays is dying from something (and it's confirmed to be cancer later in the movie.) Holden plays Patrick Foley, a man who was born and raised in Australia, and has come back to Australian in the first scene of the movie in order to reach what remains of his father's farm, located deep in the wilderness, so he can die there. While hiking in the wilderness, he comes across ten year old Shawn Daley (Schroeder), whose parents he was vacationing with have just died in a freak accident. Figuring he does not have enough time to live in order to take the boy back on the lengthy hike to civilization, Foley lets the boy accompany him on his shorter hike deeper into the wilderness to the farm.... sort of. That's because a number of the subsequent actions that Foley takes with the boy could be considered cruel. In fact, even before Foley meets the boy, we see that he could be considered somewhat of a unlikable individual. He is a person who has over a number of years shut himself off from various kinds of relationships, and does not want to get emotionally involved, possibly due to the fact that he can't seem to come to terms with his illness. In one early scene, when he reveals his medical situation to an old acquaintance, the subsequent pleas of this acquaintance for Foley to stay where he is right now and spend his final days in the company of good people fall on deaf ears.

Despite off-putting behavior like this, at the same time you still see some trace of humanity in Foley. Take what Foley keeps doing with the boy during their journey; he frequently forces the boy to rely on himself after giving little to no instruction on what to do so far from civilization. That may seem cruel, but when you think about it, it's really for the boy's benefit. After all, Foley won't be around forever, and the boy will have to rely on himself to make the long and eventual journey back to civilization. This is a challenging role, making the audience see that this kind of behavior is the right thing to do while making actions that on the surface seem cruel, and Holden manages to pull it off. It's one of his best performances; this trace of humanity in his character in a large part comes from him. Another actor might have made this character obnoxious by spouting the same lines in a different manner, but Holden makes this character compellingly flawed. Speaking of obnoxious, I have to admit one part of me was dreading watching this movie because I was afraid I'd get another obnoxious child performance from Schroeder (like what he gave in the remake of The Champ.) Actually, Schroeder comes off pretty good overall in this movie, being careful not to overdo it here. His character does take the violent death of his parents and subsequently being stranded in the wilderness a lot better than you'd expect a real ten year old boy would, but otherwise his careful restraint of his character's extreme emotions (like rage or panic) prevent him from becoming annoying. In the quieter scenes, Schroeder gives his character an air of innocence, like what your typical ten year old boy has.

When Holden and Schroeder are placed together in a scene, there is something generated that can often be hard to find in "buddy" films: chemistry. There is the expected bickering at first, but their arguing never becomes tiresome - it comes across as real people having a real disagreement, and we become interested in how and if these characters will change with each confrontation. Of course, as you've probably guessed, these two characters change slowly overtime, and Holden and Schroeder keep the chemistry active despite these changes. By the time we get to the final scene with the two characters, the audience is not only genuinely moved, but convinced that this scene could happen despite all the storm and thunder that happened between the characters beforehand. The two actors and their characters are the main reason why The Earthling works, but there is more to enjoy about the movie than just those things. For one thing, the backdrop of the movie always looks magnificent. You may have had a stereotyped idea of Australia being a mostly desert place before seeing this movie, but you won't after seeing this movie. Most of the movie takes place in forests that stretch for miles and miles on end, and the interiors of this wilderness are thick and tangled enough that it really does feel that these characters are very far from civilization. During the journey through this wilderness, we also get to learn a few interesting survival tips. There are other good things about the movie, but I'll let you discover them for yourself. If you're in the land of unknown movies, The Earthling is an oasis in the wilderness.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Against A Crooked Sky, The Legend Of Black Thunder Mountain, Seven Alone

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