Denver--Every year for the past 20 years, 16 men have gathered together for a sacred ritual in their hometown of Carrasco, Uruguay, on Dec. 21.
They aren't celebrating the winter solstice. They are commemorating their rescue from a mountaintop in the Andes where they had been stranded without food or water in sub-zero temperatures for 72 days.
The college rugby team members, who had been en route to a game in Chile when their plane crashed on a snow-covered volcano at 11,500 feet, survived by eating the dead. The search was called off after eight days; two of the young men eventually hiked 12 days across a ragged mountain range to summon help.
At the reunion last month, there was something else to celebrate besides the miracle of their survival. A movie that opened last week has been made about their ordeal. It is, the survivors say, loyal to much of the reality of their experience.
"The friendship, the courage, the decision-making were very real," survivor Roberto Canessa says of "Alive." "The film has all the dimensions of what happened. It makes no concessions."
All 16 survivors were interviewed by director Frank Marshall and his wife and producer Kathleen Kennedy, who then commissioned Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley to write the screenplay. Mr. Shanley incorporated these first-person accounts with information from the best-selling book of the same title by Piers Paul Read.
The story sticks very close to the actual events. "What happened was so incredible, if you add anything fictional, no one would believe the rest," Mr. Canessa says, adding that, by necessity, the film focuses on a few individuals while, in fact, everyone in the group made important contributions.
"The film needed a hero, and Nando [Parrado] was no doubt that hero," he says of the man with whom he hiked for help, and whose idea it was to make that impossible journey. "He lost his mother and sister, and he had the will and determination to get out."
Nando Parrado, played by Ethan Hawke in the film, served as technical adviser on "Alive," which was filmed in British Columbia on the Delphine glacier -- 2,000 feet lower than the actual crash site.
Carlitos Paez, a survivor who was 18 when the plane went down, is also helping to publicize the movie, which he felt was "an opportunity to get a great message across, at a moment when spiritualism is down."
Although Mr. Paez admits he was very sad when he saw the film, because it brought back the harrowing experience in vivid detail -- down to the brand of cigarettes smoked -- he also says he was happy that the story was so well told.
"I mustn't say this, but the movie is even better than the book. It's more spiritual. It's a tribute to life, to God and to friendship. The fact that we were a team was important. We were friends, a team, we shared a faith in God, we were the same age, from the same culture. I don't know if a group of strangers would have made it."
Both men, who were in Denver last week, are philosophical about the 10 weeks they spent watching each other die, huddling together at night in the shattered fuselage for warmth, praying and discussing their only hope for rescue. Of the 27 who survived the crash, 16 were alive when rescuers reached them. Ironically, although all 16 are still living, the one teammate who luckily missed the plane was killed in a car crash a few years ago.
For Mr. Canessa, now a heart surgeon, the experience has made him realize the importance of solidarity and helping each other. "I also know that you can lose everything at any moment. You have to live life knowing you could die in the next minute. I care about what we learned there."
Stripped of material goods and placed in a situation where previous accomplishments are meaningless, "only your values are left," he says. "Those human values are the only important thing."
Mr. Paez, whose words are used in a speech delivered by John Malkovich at the opening of the film, adds that the god he found in the mountains is not the one he was taught in school. That god, he adds, is hard to recover in civilization. Sometimes, he says, he wishes he could spend one more night on that mountain, just to experience the purity of his existence.
In the film, when the suggestion of eating the dead is made, several survivors wonder how they will face the world having done such a thing. Yet, the men report that no one questioned that decision on their miraculous return. Even the pope sent a telegram saying, "You must do what you have to do," says Mr. Paez.
Both Mr. Paez and Mr. Canessa, who visited the set and talked at length with the actors who play them, say that they were at first wary about participating after the negative experience of seeing "Survive," a low-budget, sensationalistic and inaccurate Mexican film released in 1976.
But they were convinced that the filmmakers wanted to "give a sense of what really happened," Mr. Canessa says.
"And I think it really is a family film. I'm happy it's rated PG. As a father, I would want to take my kids and, afterward, ask them what they think. It's really about how much we have in ourselves, which is much more than we think."