Pack a tent and a sleeping bag, sturdy walking boots, a torch (you’ll need it) – and off you go. The great outdoors. What could go wrong?
Camping has proved fertile ground for filmmakers looking to explore our relationship with the natural world, whether that’s the majestic forests of North America or a soggy field in England. But if there’s one uniting thread, it’s that the exercise rarely goes as planned. No matter how passionate and/or prepared you are, nature (and the general public) has its own agenda.
British directors seem incapable of taking the exercise seriously, which is hardly surprising. Urbanites trying (and failing) to get in touch with the land are ripe for mockery, and there’s inherent ridiculousness to voluntarily leaving behind the comfort of soft, dry furnishings to sleep in a damp field.
American directors tend to take a more optimistic view – aided, no doubt, by their majestic landscape. US-based films about camping tend to treat the activity as a sublime source of spiritual nourishment; a glorious rite of passage that ends in self-discovery. They’ve never had a farmer tell them off for leaving the gate open.
There is a third strain of camping film that straddles both cultures. These movies (horrors, usually) deal with foolhardy humans who leave civilisation and find themselves at the mercy of unfriendly locals and a perfidious landscape. The outcome here is worse than soggy socks: in Deliverance (1972), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Sightseers (2012), our not-so-happy campers’ journeys end in bloody horror.
Nevertheless, rain or shine, off we trot with our tents into the forests and fields, hoping to strip away the frippery of our modern-day lives and discover something about ourselves in the process. Whether or not events run as planned, as these 10 films prove, the last almost certainly comes true.
Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962)
Director: Doris Wishman
Skin flick auteur Doris Wishman cut her teeth as director and screenwriter in the 1960s with nudist feature Hideout in the Sun (1960) – a film she made after seeing how Max Nossek’s notorious Garden of Eden (1954) opened the doors to showing nudity on film. Nude on the Moon, Diary of a Nudist (both 1961) and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962) swiftly followed.
Frothy escapism is the name of the game in Wishman’s fourth feature, an oddly innocent sun-drenched fantasy that sees legendary burlesque performer Blaze Starr (playing herself) tired of the rigours of celebrity life. After wandering into a nudist film screening – featuring the conveniently nearby Sunny Palms Lodge – she drives over and joins the camp. Seduced by her newfound freedom (as well as the establishment’s beefcake director), Blaze dumps her demanding agent-boyfriend and abandons herself to the clothes-optional lifestyle. Highlights include its soft lounge jazz soundtrack, a pop-art colour palette and outrageous outfits aplenty. Meanwhile, fans of Anna Biller and John Waters can trace both directors’ signature pastel-hued sets and stilted dialogue back to its ultra-low budget roots. You can almost smell the piña colada and tanning oil.
Carry On Camping (1969)
Director: Gerald Thomas
The ever-lascivious Sid Boggle (Sid James) and Bernie Lugg (Bernard Bresslaw) take their unsuspecting girlfriends to what they believe is a nudist camp, only to find their amorous fires swiftly extinguished when site owner Mr A. Fiddler insists his is a respectable clothes-on establishment. Torrential rain, bug bites and minor injuries soon take things from bad to worse for the duo, who swiftly decide this camping lark isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But all is not lost, and the pervy pair’s fortune takes a swift uptick when a coachload of promiscuous schoolgirls – led by a boisterous and hilarious Barbara Windsor, now in her mid-thirties – pitch up. Communal showers and outdoor aerobics provide the comedic backbone to ensuing events.
The 17th and best-loved film of the series, Carry On Camping is notable for Babs’ iconic ‘ba-doing’ bra pop, torrents of puerile innuendos, and the group’s wide-eyed encounter with a 60s hippie rave. While the experience offers little in the way of personal growth, our couples learn the greatest pleasures are to be found not with their fellow campers, but with each other. Whether or not Sid and Bernie deserve their long-suffering partners is another matter.
Nuts in May (1976)
Director: Mike Leigh
Something of an outlier in Leigh’s oeuvre of mostly hard-hitting social realism, Nuts in May follows middle-class urbanites Keith (Roger Sloman) and Candice-Marie (Alison Steadman) as they embark on a whistle-stop tour of rural Dorset. The domineering Keith leads the way through castles, quarries and conflicts before exploding into anger when the peace of their bucolic sanctuary is ruptured by a noisy radio-playing neighbour (Antony O’Donnell) and a pair of Brummies who refuse to abide by the country code.
Laden with their baggage of middle-class pressures, Keith and Candice-Marie discover that nature is far from healing as they’re forced to enact their obsessive routines in an unsympathetic environment. It’s Keith who finally turns feral when his attempt at reasoning comes a cropper in the film’s fraught yet comical denouement.
Stand by Me (1986)
Director: Rob Reiner
Stand by Me is about a juncture in life with which we’re all familiar: when the blinkers of childhood finally come off and the challenging realities of the adult world come rushing forward. And while countless coming-of-age yarns deal with nostalgia and the bittersweet ache of things past, Rob Reiner’s classic stands apart thanks to the darkness of Stephen King’s writing. Death hangs over this film as oppressively and pervasively as humid summer air before a storm.
“We knew exactly who we were, and exactly where we were going,” says Gordie (Will Wheaton/Richard Dreyfuss) as an adult looking back – a line twinged with sad irony as we watch four carefree boys while the marred figures of who they will become lurk just out of sight. It’s a film that teaches us the worst horrors aren’t in death but in this dirty business of living.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
As anyone who’s been camping will confirm, tent walls are thin – and when you hear strange sounds in the night, the protective qualities (or lack thereof) offered by a thin strip of fabric become all too apparent. It’s this sense of helpless vulnerability that forms the frightening core of The Blair Witch Project, which follows three friends, who – armed with torches, tents, and a dash of youthful hubris – head off into the woods to film a documentary about a legendary witch who supposedly lives in the depths of the forest.
While the film’s conceptual ‘based on true events’ gimmick no longer holds any water (the movie’s guerrilla marketing campaign – which included missing posters and fake news reports – truly did dupe some punters into believing the directors’ claim), The Blair Witch Project still stands apart as a first-class horror. We begin with the very relatable panic of getting lost in the woods, swerve past the unfriendly locals trope, and end up in the realm of the supernatural. Panic swiftly reaches fever pitch as our intrepid trio encounters totemic stick figures, piles of rocks, and the ultimate terror – a malignant being for which flimsy nylon walls are no match.
Grizzly Man (2005)
Director: Werner Herzog
All who set out with a tent seek freedom in one form or another, but some take this desire more seriously than others. In Grizzly Man, Herzog – a serial filmer of odd people in remote places – shares the story of Timothy Treadwell, gonzo nature documentarian and self-styled bear saviour.
Treadwell was a troubled kid from Long Island who, after missing out on an acting gig in Cheers to Woody Harrelson, spirals into a drink and drugs crisis before coming out the other side a self-proclaimed protector of the grizzlies (though whether he actually did any good is up for debate). For 13 summers he flew out to a remote part of Alaska to live among the bears – he loved the bears – before one of them loved him back a little too much and made him its dinner.
Mocking Treadwell would have been easy, but Herzog remains sombre and hands-off with his narration, letting Timothy, his friends and the vast, wild landscape do the talking. Right or wrong (and probably both), Treadwell’s lifestyle remains a testament to something we’ve all desired at one time or another: a connection to something bigger and purer than ourselves.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Director: Ang Lee
Ang Lee’s film is an adaptation of a short story by Annie Proulx that appeared in the New Yorker in 1997: the tale of two ranch-hands in the early 1960s, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), who spend a summer shepherding on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Thrown together in their camp, the two lonely men bond, have sex, and fall in love. Back at home, they keep their desire a secret, meeting up for furtive fishing trips with years between each increasingly unsatisfying tryst.
A masterclass in restraint (the four-letter L-word is never mentioned), Lee’s desperately sad story is about two wasted lives. While they try to recreate their camp at Brokeback, life and its multitude of pressures and prejudices pollutes things, and their arcadia in the mountains becomes increasingly inaccessible. It all ends in tragedy, but at least they had a taste of paradise.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Director: Wes Anderson
This sprightly tale of two child lovers on the lam captures the golden glow of youth and innocence lost. ‘Troubled child’ Suzie (Kara Hayward) and orphan Sam (Jared Gilman) meet during a church performance of Noah’s Flood and become pen pals. Both dissatisfied with their situation, they plot to elope – effectively throwing a hand grenade into the ordered universe of their community.
Sam flees the rigidity of his boys’ scout camp, Suzie gives her parents the slip, and the two travel an old Indian trail to a secluded cove where they pitch a tent, share their first kiss, and dance on the pebbles. Their idyll can’t last – parents and scout leaders soon swoop in, but with the loss of their youthful paradise comes an awakening of a more mature kind: the realisation that if the world insists on keeping them apart, they’ll just have to take on the world.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Where Mike Leigh turns the campsite into an incubator for mostly gentle anarchy, Wheatley mines the chaotic potential of the rural environment to its depths with his unhinged horror-comedy, Sightseers. Bizarre sleeping pods, blood-spattered caravans and Shamanic drumming circles provide a backdrop that feels increasingly manic. What are these humans doing here, making a holiday destination of this ancient and brutal land? Tea rooms and quaint museums feel increasingly like a fragile veneer covering something altogether more primal and sinister in the craggy landscape.
As alienating as our misanthropic antiheroes’ behaviour undoubtedly is, there’s guilty pleasure to be found for anyone who’s ever wished an untimely end on self-centred holidaymakers. Look out for an obvious parallel to Nuts in May, with Chris (Steve Oram) chasing a fellow rambler with a tree branch – except in this version, our leading man crushes his antagonist’s skull to a brainy pulp.
All Hands on Deck (2020)
Director: Guillaume Brac
Filmed among the idyllic canyons and creeks of Die in south-eastern France, Guillaume Brac’s gentle romcom deals with the not always harmonious wrestle of male friendship and the gentle pull of how shared troubles can bring you closer together. Felix (Eric Nantchouang) embarks on a 600-mile trip with friends Eduard (Édouard Sulpice) and Chérif (Salif Cissé) in tow. His goal? Woo a young woman he met at a party. Things turn sour when the car breaks down and the woman in question is less than pleased with the surprise. While Felix gets his own sleeping arrangements, his two friends squash into (and bond over) a urine-soaked tent, keeping their lovesick friend in line, and mutual concerns over snoring.
All Hands on Deck feels like a modern-day Éric Rohmer film, with just a touch of Call Me by Your Name’s sophisticated sensuality, and Carry On Camping’s chaotic humour thrown into the mix. It’s as sweet and light as crème brûlée– but crack its surface to discover a whisper of melancholy. We’re dealing with passions as fiery and fleeting as youth, after all.