Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, also known as the Andes flight disaster, was a chartered flight carrying 45 rugby team members and associates that crashed in the Andes on 13 October, 1972. The last of the 16 survivors were rescued on December 23, 1972. More than a quarter of the passengers died in the crash and several more quickly succumbed to cold and injury. Of the twenty-nine who were alive a few days after the accident, another eight were killed by an avalanche that swept over their shelter in the wreckage.
The crash survivors, thinking they would be found and rescued within days, had little food and no source of heat in the harsh climate, at over 3,600 metres (12,000 ft) altitude. Faced with starvation and radio news reports that the search for them had been abandoned, the survivors fed on the dead passengers who had been preserved in the snow. Rescuers did not learn of the survivors until 72 days after the crash when passengers Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, after a 12-day trek across the Andes, found a Chilean huaso, who gave them food and then alerted authorities about the existence of the other survivors.
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The ill-fated plane before take-off
The site where the plane crashed in the cold Andes at 12,000 feet.
The survivors rejoice at the arrival of rescue teams
The two heroes with the man who saw them first: Parrado and Canessa with Sergio Catalan
The survivors wave at the rescue team
On way to safety
The survivor cannibals
This is the first mainstream film to deal with the harrowing true story of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes mountains in October of 1972 and who were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive more than two months of isolation. (The only other film to tackle the subject, Rene Cardona's Survive! was a seedy little mess that delighted in exploiting the cannibalism aspect.) The events depicted are primarily based on the novel of the same name by Piers Paul Read.
The interview-style prologue features an uncredited John Malkovich as one of the survivors, whose spiritual ruminations on the disaster kick off the film's main action. We are briefly introduced to the characters before disaster strikes, in the film's most horrifying set-piece -- the depiction of the crash in grueling detail. The handful of survivors who manage to extricate themselves from the twisted wreckage seem incapable of working through their panic as they hope against all odds that a rescue party will locate them. One of the survivors, Nando (Ethan Hawke), awakens from a coma and makes a remarkable recovery -- enough to demonstrate level-headed leadership after team captain Antonio (Vincent Spano) begins to lose his nerve.
As the weeks wear on and rations are depleted, the survivors are forced into a moral dilemma: the only remaining source of food seems to be the bodies of the dead. Those who choose for religious reasons not to consume their former companions must face the realization that they will soon starve or freeze to death. In the end, three men who choose survival above all else find the strength to set out on a treacherous mission to a ridge, where hopefully one of them will make it to civilization.
Director Frank Marshall infuses the proceedings with sufficient intensity to keep the story moving, but the film fails to fully explore the often-recounted spiritual aspects of the ordeal as established in the opening monologue. Ironically, the writers' apparent attempts to remain true to Read's account of events -- resulting in some rather odd stretches of dialogue -- impede the drama even more than the Hollywood glamorization of the story's nominal "heroes," who remain rugged and handsome despite months of malnutrition and severe frostbite.
The events that followed the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in 1974 are, by now, notorious. The survivors, members of a rugby team left to fend for themselves in the Andes, ultimately resorted to cannibalism for the sake of survival, devouring the flesh of their dead companions. As a result, 16 men (of the initial 45) managed to stay alive on a frozen glacier for an incredible ten weeks.
The story prompted a best-selling nonfiction tome by Piers Paul Read, a 1993 feature dramatization directed by Spielberg collaborator Frank Marshall, and this documentary, which recounts the harrowing story via firsthand accounts with those involved. Director Gonzalo Arijon shoots dramatic reenactments of the events; he intercuts this footage with clips of the press conference that greeted the men on their return, and recently recovered archival photographs.