Here are three films about people hiking three of the world’s great long distance trails. While some of the films are better than others, you’d have to be made of stone for them not to make your heart beat a little faster at the thought of packing your backpack and hitting the open road for a few months…
The Way (2011)
I found this quiet, understated movie surprisingly compelling and moving. The story is a classic; uptight, selfish character suffers loss, sets out to find himself, faces challenges, meets diverse and quirky band of companions, and changes for the better. However, Martin Sheen plays the aforementioned uptight dentist with a low-key dignity that makes the clichés believable and engaging character quirks. Similarly, the other characters are engaging and funny, particularly the ebullient Dutchman. Of course, the real main character is the route itself, and The Way, unlike other similar films that treat the route simply as a pretty backdrop, does a beautiful job of capturing what it really means for the Pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago. More than perhaps any other film in this list, this made me want to have the same experience, and walk the Camino.
This film about The Pacific Crest Trail, one of the two epic hiking trails in North America is really about a flawed character who suffers loss, sets out to find herself, faces challenges, meets various strange characters along the way, and is changed for the better.
In all seriousness, though, it’s a very different film to The Way. To a large extent it is held together by the performance of Reese Witherspoon in the lead role, who is alone for large chunks of the film. Fortunately, she’s incredibly engaging and plays this troubled but resilient and complex character perfectly. It has some of the standard tropes of the ‘inexperienced hiker goes hiking’ theme; overly heavy pack, difficulty putting up tents or using equipment, but also does a good job of showing off the beauty of the PCT and the joy and fear of being alone in the wilderness.
A Walk in the Woods (2015)
This is a film about the other epic hiking trail in North America, the Appalachian Trail. In all honesty this is my least favourite of the films featured here. It’s a shame as I loved the book, but sadly the film fails to capture the humour of Bill Bryson’s wry but informative commentary, while also struggling desperately (and largely failing) to make a compelling narrative out of what is basically just a story about two middle aged men who walk some, but not all, of the Appalachian Trail. Robert Redford’s slightly too elderly Bryson is, while almost absurdly likeable, also very bland, and the film never really managed to capture his complex relationship with Stephen Kurtz. It does show some spectacular scenery, but still doesn’t really manage to get across the sense of what it might be like to hike the Appalachian Trail in the way that either The Way or Wild do.
However, it’s certainly watchable enough, and enjoyable in a very gentle, very mildly funny kind of way.