I was not sure where to ask this question. The 1965 version with Jimmy Stewart is the one to watch. Everyone from the flick is gone now with the exception of Barry Chase and Hardy Kruger. Warning: Do not watch the piece of crap remake, best advice I have given in recent memory.

The author I think had an aviation background and spent a lot of time on the technical aspects of what they were doing. But what I am wondering about is whether the possibility of marching out of the desert having about a zero percent chance of success. This is a 200 mile trek across the desert with magnetic mountain ranges affecting the compass.

Water and exposure are big problems but they also point out that navigation would make it possible to "walk past the Eiffel Tower" and never see it. The unequal strides between left and right legs is mentioned.

200 miles indeed seems like a long journey but the character proposing the idea was a military man.

EDIT: Plot summary, major spoilers:

An old oil-company plane crashes in the Sahara desert. The passengers are mainly oil field workers plus a couple of military men and a couple other men. The crashed plane is completely unflyable (they stay near it as it is the only shelter for hundreds of miles) and their radio is broken also. It was meant to be a short flight -- they have for the 7 or 8 survivors 10 days worth of water and some pressed dates as cargo to eat.

They realize that no one is coming for them because it is unlikely they survived plus searching would be very hard. So they are on their own.

The only things being considered are hoping a plane will see smoke pots they are burning and marching 200 miles across the desert for help -- nobody thinks either of these will work.

The "big idea" of the film is that one of the passengers is an engineer who in fact designs airplanes and he quietly has been considering whether it is possible not to repair the plane, which can't be done but to take the broken pieces and create a new plane from the remaining salvageable engine and wings -- the original plane of course had a passenger cabin, etc. with twin engines; the new design will be a single engine and the passengers will be strapped onto the wing for what is anticipated to be a short flight. The design requires all sorts of improvisation.

No one thinks this will work either and the engineer proposing this is German which in 1965 was significant -- he is too young to have fought in ww2 and his youth is also a factor which makes the captain, played by Stewart who was in his late 50s at the time, both be skeptical and resent the challenge to his authority.

Despite the fact that no one thinks it will work, they have no alternatives and they begin. The engineer proves himself to be just incredibly, Mr. Spock-level competent -- he is able to solve all sorts of technical problems and eventually the new plane begins to take shape.

There are some twists that I won't spoil and some conflicts. It is very much worth seeing.

The military officer nonetheless decides to march for help -- iirc, he embarks early in the film, maybe before the construction is underway and returns barely alive. I don't think they give him beyond his normal water ration which maybe doomed the attempt to failure since he will have no shade. But also, others point out that he will almost certainly not be able to find his destination due to navigation issues.

  • I haven't seen the remake, but I remember the original as excellent.
    – ab2
    Commented Oct 29, 2020 at 21:47
  • It was, everyone should see it. You will gain nothing by seeing the remake unless you care about film history and are maybe writing a paper about why films fail. The makers of the remake should be ashamed -- I don't think any remake has a chance for such a film. Like if they remake the Godfather -- how would that work? Too far removed from the time to capture the feel -- 1970 was only 25 years after ww2 and I think the remake of FOTP failed in part (there were other issues) because it was meant to be a port-war film.
    – releseabe
    Commented Oct 29, 2020 at 22:07
  • 1
    Are you more interested in the navigation aspect or the survival aspect? IMO they're 2 separate questions, though to some extent interlinked. I saw the film decades ago, but can't remember if it considers the possibility of walking at night/seeking shade by day to manage temperature better and use stellar direction-finding
    – Chris H
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 8:41
  • 1
    Can you please summarise a bit more clearly what's going on in this film?
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 9:25
  • AFAIK the officer who sets out for help isn't attempting to walk 200 miles, only to find an oasis which is supposedly 10 miles away. Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 20:09

3 Answers 3


Water is definitely the limiting factor here.

I present to you "Moore's March". This was named after a soldier Ronald Joseph Moore (link describes the march as well as his history) from the Long Range Desert Group in World War II. Moore, along with his patrol group were in the battle for the capture of Kufra in Libya, when they were ambushed, losing their transport and supplies. Moore and 3 other survivors then attempted a march across the Libyan desert 290 miles (470 km) to the nearest Allied camp.

They had two gallons (about 9 litres) of water and limited food (2 lb/0.9 kg jar of jam). Moore was the last rescued, ~12 days after the ambush, and was aiming for Tekro in Chad. He was wounded with shrapnel in one foot, but only about 80 mi (130 km) from his destination out of a total of about 270 miles (440 km) for a straight line between the two locations.

As the limiting factor, they had 9 litres, 4 people (admittedly lost some along the way) and 12 days - works out to be 0.1875 litres (187.5 ml/6.3 US fluid ounces, or slightly over 1/2 a soda can) per person per day. That's a very low water intake for the sorts of conditions expected in the desert.

As part of the LRDG, Moore would have been an expert land navigator and trained in desert survival. The abilities of the LRDG were legendary amongst soldiers in WWII and were part of the support for the very first British Special Air Service (SAS), which are the equivalent of the Army Rangers and the Navy Seals in the USA.

The SAS, when it was first being developed in North Africa also did training on desert survival and have several stories of heroic desert crossings. There's one episode in the book SAS Rogue Heroes (Ben Macintyre, 2016, Penguin Books), which is apparently an authorized history of the SAS and is a good, entertaining read, if you like military history. It tells of John William Sillito, enduring a forced march of about 140 miles on minimal water. It is described (with my emphasis):

Corporal John William Sillito, known as ‘Jack’, was navigating a jeep party to blow up a section of the railway near Tobruk in mid-October 1942 when his unit came under attack from a German night patrol. In the ensuing confusion, Sillito became separated from the rest of the men: ‘Suddenly he found himself completely alone.’ He carried only a revolver, a compass and a small flask containing enough water for twenty-four hours. Sillito was a straightforward man, a farmer in civilian life. Having reflected for a while, he concluded that he had three options: he could go north and surrender; he could strike out east, in the hope of evading the Axis troops and reaching the British fines at Alamein; or he could head south, and try to cross the 180 miles to Mayne’s desert camp. He chose the third option, despite knowing that there was ‘next to no chance of meeting any form of life or water, and where a mistake in direction meant certain and unpleasant death’.

At first, the trek was not unpleasant, though it was lonely. Recent rain had left puddles of drinkable water. But as Sillito trudged on, the moisture dried up and the skies became ‘pitilessly blue and unchanging’. He ran out of water on the second day, and began to store and drink his urine, which steadily grew more concentrated and disgusting. He walked at night and lay up during the day, under whatever shade he could find. On the fourth day, his feet blistered and cracked; by the fifth, his tongue had swelled up, and his limbs began to cramp. Still he trudged south, while ‘the flat landscape stretched on and on in front of him.’ On the seventh day, now pitifully weak and starting to hallucinate, he spotted a convoy of jeeps in the far distance. Sillito jumped up and down, shouting, but the vehicles seemed to be heading away. Fumbling with his box of matches, he stripped off his shirt and set fire to it and then waved the burning garment above his head, but the smoke seemed to evaporate in the heat. The jeeps vanished over the horizon. ‘He was alone once more, with the heat, the sweat, and his thoughts.’ And no shirt. On day eight, close to death, he spotted the white dunes that mark the edge of the Sand Sea. Somewhere, about 40 miles inside the sandy ocean, was the camp. If he could find the spot where the jeeps drove in and out of the Sand Sea, he might be saved; he knew he could not walk another 40 miles.

A three-jeep SAS raiding party had made an unscheduled stop for repairs when a ‘skeleton, with sore and bleeding feet’, staggered out of the heat.

This means he walked about 140 miles (225 km) with a small ration of water (perhaps a two litres/half-gallon) and some from puddles etc.

So - is it possible? Yes, with determination, skill, and a bit of luck.


For thousands of years, people navigated by the stars and other natural features (e.g., close observation of ocean features for the Polynesians) with no, zero, zilch modern equipment. Thus, I conclude that IF the people on the FOTP had a very savvy celestial navigator and some knowledge of the terrain between where they crashed and where they wanted to go, they could have found their way out.

The other question, as @Chris H pointed out in his comment, above, is survival -- water, food. The limiting factor is water.

At night, even in a desert, one can build a simple condensation trap and get some water. Whether one could collect enough during part of the night to sustain one in walking out during the rest of the night, I have no idea. It is pretty clear to me that one has to travel at night for navigation and for conserving energy and water. One can go a long time without food, and even in the desert, there is food (e.g., lizards, snakes, some vegetative matter). (See The Long Walk, about a band of prisoners who purportedly escaped a Siberian gulag to British India, across the Gobi. This account gave rise to dispute.)

I can't remember whether any of the people on the FOTP had survival skills. Some of them had very few social skills, which are also important in a desperate bid for survival.

IMO, your question boils down to: Assuming at least one person could navigate well by the stars, and that at least one person had survival skills, and everyone behaved well and was in good physical shape, could the group have walked out 200 miles on the water from condensation traps and the meager food they could scrounge?

  • 1
    In the movie or the book, the collected water with a parachute. It was not enough to prevent them from running out. The also tried distilling antifreeze which seemed barely worth the effort. Bottom line, they were steadily running out of water. I see traveling 200 miles having to carry all the water you would get as being a big problem. They also had only one food -- pressed dates and they were steadily also getting weaker from limited nutrition. The book Skeletons of the Zahara shows just how hard it was to survive even for natives.
    – releseabe
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 18:58
  • @relesabe I just came back from watching FOTP, and I didn't see the parachute used for water collection, only for shade. Distilling antifreeze provided (the movie says) significant extra water. Their ration was one pint per day per person, although five out of 12 people died in the course of the film, so this allowance was substantially increased. They did overlook a recently killed camel, which would have been a source of liquid and meat. No mention was made of constructing condensation traps. Next step is to read the book and look up infoo on condensation traps.
    – ab2
    Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 21:42
  • i may have gotten parachute for water from book -- in fact, it was without a doubt in the book, the idea of the water tasting of the doping with which parachute was coated i had to have gotten from there.
    – releseabe
    Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 22:23
  • I too thought of the camels as a source of meat and maybe water but maybe camels can reach a point where they are so exhausted that there is little nutrition -- I have read that the Donner party found eating people who had starved to be "like eating straw." I am not sure I believe this -- they should have at least explained why they did not eat the camel.
    – releseabe
    Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 22:40
  • Also why they had not cobbled together an emergency wireless signal. They had a generator and radio components. Maybe impossible with what they had, but worth a sentence or two. But even if it wasn't perfect, it was a damn good movie!
    – ab2
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 16:54

Normal people wouldn't make it, but I present to you the Marathon des Sables, 156 miles in 6 days across the Sahara. Now you've given them 10 days of water, presumably that allows for desert conditions. I'd suggest it's entirely possible for someone who has trained for the scenario to walk out of there if the navigation issues can be overcome.

Navigating by sun and stars, with the assistance of a good clock and all you need to do is maintain a vaguely straight line, it's possible.

If the Sahara isn't your desert of choice, there are plenty more options

  • 1
    the people in the marathon -- did they carry the water themselves? I see that they do not and I am sure this makes a significant difference: runnersworld.com/uk/training/ultra/a27084556/…
    – releseabe
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 13:16
  • 1
    @releseabe, some of the marathons on the list are "self sufficient", have to check the rules but it probably means day to day rather than all kit for the week. 100mile overnight races are also a thing. For a person with the right training getting out should not be a problem. Such things are a modern activity though, in 1965 they'd have looked at the idea in horror.
    – Separatrix
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 13:24
  • I recall reading many years ago that Bruce Lee ran 10 miles every day and that seemed impossible -- little did i know that by the 1980s that would be not completely rare among amateur athletes. the people in the movie were not only not athletes but also no one probably in the world, as you indicate, at that time had managed half that distance over night. Also, desert sand has got to be a lousy running surface.
    – releseabe
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 14:09
  • 3
    @releseabe, unless you're in a hurry, you don't run, you walk. Ten miles a night is quite doable; 20 a night is pushing it unless you've got long nights or a good walking surface.
    – Mark
    Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 3:36

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