Staying for a while in natural settings can offer calm and quiet. It can invite people into a contemplative mood. Nature can also be a harsh environment bent on crushing people if they do not have the skills to survive. Either way, there’s something much more elemental and pure about journeying through nature, far from modern cities. The movies on this list feature characters who are in touch with the natural world. But the movies aren’t just about their physical journey through nature, simply playing like travel guides with pretty scenery.
Most characters on this list have personal baggage, and there’s something about their contact with the open road and the natural elements of life that makes them meditative about life itself, and about their own life. They’re making their way on very personal inner journeys, in addition to the physical paths that they walk.
7 The Red Turtle (2016)
An excellent movie from Studio Ghibli directed by Dutch-British animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle is about a man stranded on an island and sorting out his relationship with nature. At first, he does his best to escape the island, but nature, represented as a majestic red turtle, resolutely blocks his way out, frustrating all of his attempts in a crushing way. Only when he starts accepting his lot on the island does the harmony between man and nature flow more smoothly, and nature provides him with all he could ever need. The feeling de Wit wanted to convey was “a profound, deep awe for nature. And I do not mean lovely sunsets and animals, but for Nature with a capital N.” He’s made a movie rich with symbolism, visual beauty, and great music that did not get as large of an audience as it deserves.
6 Wild (2014)
Game is the anti-Into the Wild. While that latter film from Sean Penn made poetry out of life on the road, in Game, directed by the recently-deceased Jean-Marc Vallée, Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) goes on the road as a way to personally cleanse herself of recent sins and tragedies. She decides to walk 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, and her journey is shown in a very raw, unromantic way that fully highlights its harsh difficulty and Cheryl’s struggle. But Cheryl wants and needs to undertake something difficult after the loss of her mother, a drug addiction, and untrammeled sex that ended her marriage left her in all kinds of wastelands in life. The movie, adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s real-life memoir, recounts her attempt to reclaim herself.
5 Dances with Wolves (1990)
Lieutenant John Dunbar injures his foot in battle and chooses heroic death over amputation, but his actions, instead of leading to his death, allow his Union Army comrades a victory. He’s awarded for his bravery a post of his choosing. He wants to see the western frontier before it’s gone. His contemplative nature is contrasted with that of an unstable major who hates Dunbar’s enthusiasm, something that’s more compellingly shown in the extended version of the film. At Fort Sedgwick, Dunbar finds himself all alone, the outpost having been deserted. A lone wolf keeps him company. He writes a diary of his days. Later, he enters into contact with the Indians. Towards the end, Dances With Wolves becomes a powerful lament about a people, and a way of life that he’s become part of, that could be lost.
4 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
“What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?” a journalist asks. “It’s clean,” answers TE Lawrence. Lawrence of Arabia is David Lean’s masterful epic about the British historical figure who traveled to Arabia and formed friendly ties with the tribes that lived there in the desert during the colonial Ottoman Empire during World War I. The way Lean has captured the feel of the endless sand stretching in all directions, as Lawrence experiences it, is cinematically iconic. Lawrence’s journey is one of identity search, wrestling with his allegiances between the British and the Arabs, and passing by a phase of experimentation with the Messiah complex. He’s driven by purity, but finds how the worlds of self-identity and of politics are far less cleanly cut than the desert.
3 Bambi (1942)
Much more than a cute movie about a fawn and his animal friends, Bambi is a full symphony through the seasons that nature goes through, and a journey through the seasons of conscious life itself. From early childhood under motherhood’s responsible and protective care, to episodes of learning and character testing, to the full shouldering of responsibility when called forth by the father and by circumstance, Bambi ranks among the very best animated works of art.
2 The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Far from being a political film, this story of Che Guevara’s early-life road trip around South America with his friend Alberto Granado is a meditative memoir about places visited and about the feel for people that a young Guevara gets, which is attached to the feel for the natural rural world they live in. On the Machu Picchu, when he comes into contact with the Peruvian natives (while the country has acquired a more Spanish influence), Guevara asks, “How is it possible that I feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?” It’s a feeling he seems to get from the sense of closeness to basic nature coming from the native people he encounters. In addition to being a memorable road movie, The Motorcycle Diaries is also an excellent portrait of real friendship.
1 Into the Wild (2007)
Having lost belief in society and people as the source of happiness, due to his upbringing in a tension-filled household with bursts of violence, Christopher McCandless goes on the road without looking back. His journey will be a long one from bitterness to coming to grips with personal scars. On the way, he reads and writes contemplative poetry, quotes Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, and Jack London, and exchanges thoughts with the people he meets. In Into the Wilddirector Sean Penn captures a beauty, a melancholy, and a depth to this journey that’s impossible to describe in words, except by saying that it’s the purest of cinematic feelings.
Original star Will Smith will team up with Michael B. Jordan in the next installment of the I Am Legend series.
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