For many years during my childhood, every Christmas seemed to bring a repeat showing of the 1993 film Alive!—and I think everyone who grew up in a certain period has a film or clutch of films that they can remember as “always being on” at Christmas. Today, it is different: you set the schedule—you can select whatever you like from the menu, and it has been that way for over a decade now. Alive! was never shown exactly at Christmas—for reasons you shall soon discover—but was usually aired three or four days before Christmas Eve, probably in a 10:30 time slot.
Before you rush out to view this film, be aware that it is mediocre—at times the acting is poor—and it only deserves mention due to the extraordinary story it relates; in short, the film tells how, in 1972, a Uruguayan university rugby team—along with a few others—took a flight to Chile that crashed in the Andes after their aircraft clipped a mountain.
After a sleigh-ride in the aircraft’s dismembered fuselage, the survivors came to rest in the middle of nowhere—for a time, as they camped in the fuselage, they hoped to be rescued; eventually, the search was called off. Reduced to the chocolates and duty-free wine among the luggage, they were then forced to become cannibals and eat the remains of their deceased kin. Finally, a small group climbed their way out through the mountains to Chile to seek rescue.
The story has been told and retold many times, both in documentaries and books—some written by the survivors themselves. The best is Piers Paul Read’s Alive!, itself the basis for the 1993 film—a book I once read all the way through to my girlfriend as a bedtime story. There are many reasons why this story compels: the initial unlikely survival, the fuselage as somewhat cosy camp, the bitter defeat when it is buried by an avalanche halfway through the ordeal, the moral questions raised by cannibalism, and, not least, the determination by those rugby players who turned mountaineers to save themselves.
I glanced at the film again recently, and, years later, saw more clearly its serious deficiencies. However, there was one aspect to the film that struck me anew. The film begins with a prologue delivered by John Malkovich—in his role as an older survivor who establishes the narrative frame for the film—that contains the following quote: “To be affronted by solitude without decadence or a single material thing to prostitute, it elevates you to a spiritual plane—where I felt the presence of God. Now, there's the God they taught me about at school, and there is the God that's hidden by what surrounds us in this civilisation.” As a child this bored me and I ignored it, impatient for the action to start; yet this sentiment is very close to what DH Lawrence and Heidegger speak about, the hidden God: the hidden God behind the black sun; the renewer, the God who puts sleepy Jesus to bed and births a new god—possibly a god born, as with this tale, from a blood sacrifice and autophagy.
This hidden God is not a being, not an entity in whose image we are made who has all-power but rather the nature of things themselves. In civilisation—in decadence and comfort—you cannot feel his presence; only in the high mountains can you, as one character does, pull out an aluminium sheet to sit on and say, “I know we will see our families again. I knew it at sunrise. Can you feel it? God is everywhere today.” This hidden God is a poetic God, only apparent to us when the pretences that constitute civilisation have been removed from us—when the illusions have been stripped away, especially by nature; and when we have consumed our own friend’s flesh. Then we realise that everything is saturated with the hidden God, our mountain air.