A real, live "Alive" survivor relates his Andes ordeal

By Buzz McClain

"If we had been soccer players, we would have died."

It's probably the most popular rugby movie ever. Too bad everyone thinks it's about cannibalism.

The movie is "Alive," the dramatic tale of a school alumni team from Uruguay on its way to a match in Chile in 1972 when the plane crashed in the Andes. The film, which reaches video stores Sept. 1 along with a companion documentary, depicts the hardships the survivors encountered during their 72 days in brutal conditions.

Among other things, they consumed the frozen flesh of the victims. In reality, the film might never have been made if not for the popular bumper sticker: "Rugby Player Eat Their Dead," which was inspired by the Uruguay episode.

"My wife and I were in Carlsbad visiting my brother," says Frank Marshall, who directed the film; his wife is film producer Kathleen Kennedy. "Carlsbad is about 100 miles south of Los Angeles and it was a weekend when I had to decide which project I was going to make for (the Disney studios).

"I was considering 'Swing Kids' or 'Alive.' I was attracted to 'Swing Kids' because I was fond of the music, my dad was a jazz musician, but 'Alive' had this extraordinary, compelling story about survival. I couldn't do both and I had to give them my decision by Monday."

The weekend passed without a conclusive decision. Then it happened.

"We were coming back home when this little red truck pulled out in front of us, almost on purpose," Marshall says with a laugh. "And it had that bumper sticker about rugby players eating their dead. I said to my wife, 'Hey, there's the sign we need!'"

He called the studio from his car phone "and told them we were doing 'Alive.'"

Marshall says he hasn't seen the bumper sticker since.

Since then the film has made some $36 million in theaters around the world. Marshall was a soccer player at UCLA, "and I never got into rugby although I was aware of it. I probably would have liked it." He took a crash course, so to speak, with the members of the downed team who consulted on the film. "It's a fascinating sport, so pure, it just goes on and on with no substitutions. I think it's great."

The actors in the movie were non-rugby players who also learned for the filming. "We shot part of the film in Vancouver - there's quite a bit of rugby in Canada - and we found a high school that had a team and we went and watched a match. I had the actors on the field practicing - of course they all wanted to throw it like a football."

Did Marshall join the fun? "Oh, yeah," he laughs. "I got out there."

Marshall even encouraged the actors to scrimmage. "I wanted them to play because I really wanted these actors to be like a team," he says.

The team spirit is what kept the real-life 16 survivors alive, says Nando Parrado, 43, who was a second row and No. 8 for the Old Christians Club, the team that was on its way to play the Old Boys in Chile.

"It's a game that's misunderstood by people who don't play rugby," Parrado said in a phone call from his home in Montevideo, Uruguay. "They don't understand the team spirit, the sacrifice you make of yourself for another player so he can score. We survived from that spirit.

"If we had been soccer players, we would have died.

"Everybody thinks eating human flesh is the most gruesome and terrible thing you can do, but - and Frank got this very, very well in the movie - it was only one more thing that we did for us to get out. We had to."

Parrado, who is played in the movie by Ethan Hawke, says eating the flesh did not mean they would survive - "There were others who ate the flesh and died anyway, from the avalanche and the cold" - but it did inspire them all the more to escape certain death on the mountaintop.

In the documentary, "Alive: 20 Years Later," which has far more rugby in it than "Alive," Parrado also cites the idea of his grieving father as the motivating factor for his 10 day trek over the Andes to find help.

Parrado says he and the other surviving rugby players have nothing but praise for Marshall's movie: "He went to the mountain with us, he lived with us, and he treated the story very, very accurately. We wouldn't change a thing."

Parrado played for 11 years in his country's first division and still suits up "two or three times a year for reunion matches. I wish I could still play all the time," he says.

Of the 16 survivors, "15 are married and have families and are businessmen who are doing well," says Marshall. For example, Roberto Conesa, a medical student at the time of the crash, is now a renowned pediatric heart surgeon who may run for the presidency of Uruguay.

Parrado is a TV producer who owns a cable TV station, a racquet sports club and a bolt and nut factory.

"Alive: 20 Years Later" is a 51 minute film, narrated by Martin Sheen, that does more than show the standard "making of" footage; the documentary catches up with the survivors and goes into depth in ways a move script cannot about what happened during the trial in the Andes.

It's a remarkable film about a remarkable event.

BEST LINE: By the way, and I'm sure rugby players will agree, the best line in "Alive" is near the beginning, as the players are cutting up on the plane taking them to Chile. One seated player turns to another and asks, "Which do you like better, sex or rugby?"

After giving it some thought the player responds, "Sex. (Pause) Except when I'm playing rugby."

[The line in the videotape I saw is "Which do you like better, girls or rugby?" - Wes]