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Bear Grylls: Man vs. Wild

Jim Bishop

Diverse Productions
U.S. Release: 10 November 2006
“I’m Bear Grylls. I’ve served in the British Special Forces. I’ve climbed to the summit of Everest and crossed the frozen oceans of the Arctic. Now, I’m in [exotic location], a land of [several intimidating-sounding land features]. Every year [astronomical figure] tourists need to be rescued from this place. I’m going to show you the skills needed to survive here.”

So begins a typical episode of Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild, which completed its sixth season in February of this year. The show’s basic premise is this: Grylls is dropped—by helicopter, by bush plane, or by some other, equally adventurous means—in a remote wilderness. Normally he has with him only a few basic survival tools: a water bottle, a knife, perhaps his parachute, maybe a small backpack. Without map or compass, he must navigate to civilization, improvising from whatever he can find along the way.

The show squeezes ample excitement into each episode. Depending on the locale, Grylls might paddle an abandoned dinghy across a frigid Alaskan inlet through a maze of icebergs, all the while taking on water and nearly sinking. Or he might rappel into the bowels of a glacial crevasse and then climb back out with an improvised wooden ice axe. Or he might fashion a primitive raft out of driftwood and use it to float himself from island to island in the outer reaches of the Hawaiian archipelago.

Still more exciting is Grylls’s survival diet. He does find some conventional things to eat: pine nuts in the Sierra Nevada, coconuts in the South Pacific, salmon in Alaska. But he relishes things most viewers would find positively revolting: beetles, grubs, ants, spiders, snails, scorpions. He kills a rattlesnake and bites into it raw—scales, bones, and all. He holds a ball of elephant dung above his head and squeezes the moisture out of it into his mouth. He drinks his own urine out of a snake skin. In one memorable moment, Grylls eats a raw eyeball from a yak carcass he’s just butchered. Gelatinous fluid squirts out of his mouth with each chew; he struggles to choke it down. “Awful,” he declares upon finally swallowing it. “It’s like an eruption of cold . . . fluid . . . gristle . . . blood . . . Phaw.”

Some critics have complained about the show’s fabrication of survival situations. One episode, for instance, gives viewers the impression that Grylls was a “real-life Robinson Crusoe” stuck on a desert island, while in reality he retired to a motel at night between filming sessions. Often Grylls directly addresses the camera crew, implicitly reminding viewers that he isn’t alone in the wilderness. I, for one, didn’t care much about the show’s contrivances and embellishments; I considered these part of the art of making good television. In general, I didn’t ask: Did he really spend the night on that island? Did he really just eat that disgusting-looking larva?

What troubles me about the show is not the show’s lax attitude toward realism, but rather its ambivalent message. Grylls repeatedly reminds us of the importance of keeping calm, of choosing wise locations to make camp, of seeking the easiest and most direct way out of the wilderness. Nearly all of this advice strikes me as sound. This is why I am repeatedly baffled by the decisions Grylls makes. Descending along a river valley in the Amazon, he arrives at a 120-foot waterfall. Rather than doing what a sane person would do in similar circumstances, which is to find a route around the waterfall, Grylls downclimbs it—an incredibly dangerous and risky strategy. Grylls explores an abandoned gold mine in the Yukon, carrying only an improvised torch made of sticks and duff. (The torch eventually flames out, of course). In one particularly ridiculous moment, Grylls wastes a substantial amount of energy trying to lasso a wild mustang with the intention of riding it down and out of the Sierra Nevada. (He fails.)

The show leaves the impression that wilderness survival is about taking risks—swimming naked across icy rivers, finding water beneath unstable glaciers, fighting alligators—when often the best survival strategy is simply to stay in one place, build a smoky signal fire, and wait for help. A show based on this principle, I understand, would make for lousy television, but it wouldn’t hurt for Grylls to remind us periodically that his brand of wilderness survival is riskier and more complicated than is usually necessary.

I also could do without the “Man vs. Wild” formulation in the show’s title and some of its rhetoric. Often Grylls, for dramatic effect, tells us that the landscapes in which he’s teaching us to survive “can kill.” Yes, and so can bathtubs. And lawnmowers. And cheeseburgers. Far more interesting to me is the notion that people can survive perfectly well in environments we normally think of as wild and dangerous. I appreciate the show’s quiet moments, when Grylls enjoys a cup of spruce-needle tea while admiring the inspiring beauty of a place. I particularly enjoy those episodes in which Grylls learns hunting, gathering, and trapping techniques from local people—Tuvans in Siberia, for instance, or San in Namibia—who know the land intimately. In its best moments, Man vs. Wild reminds us that so-called wildernesses are actually places that indigenous people have called, and continue to call, home.

Jim Bishop is Assistant Professor of English at Young Harris College in the mountains of North Georgia. Currently, he is co-editing a book manuscript, “Currents of the Universal Being: Explorations in the Literature of Energy,” with Scott Slovic and Kyhl Lyndgaard, due out from Texas Tech University Press in 2011.

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