"We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on!"
In brief: Any river voyage (or other journey into the wilderness) is a doomed expedition in which the characters alternately die, go mad, get lost, go native, or otherwise barely live to tell the tale.
This tends to broadly describe any expedition that involves a hopeless journey along a set path (or path of least resistance) to an unfamiliar (possibly hopeless or nonexistent) destination. Often this involves a boat and a river. This trope explains why Genre Savvy adventurers know to avoid river expeditions at all costs, even though it is usually the fastest way of penetrating the interior.
This trope was popularized in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. However, this is a more universal feature of wilderness expeditions, and predates Conrad.
River of Insanity more generally describes a doomed voyage "into the wild" (usually focused on the trip itself), since examples show that almost any wilderness voyage in fiction, especially by boat, is doomed from the start, either because of the river itself or the natives or cabin fever. The Captain of such an expedition will often be the Determinator, willing to press on regardless of cost, until only he is left. Far from being honored for his perseverance by the reward of a legendary destination, the author himself may mock him for his efforts.
Often there is An Aesop about the supreme power of Mother Nature or, more cynically, the fundamental indifference of Nature to our survival, or merely a metaphor for the triumph of barbarism and the darkness of the human soul. Compare Hungry Jungle.
Contrast Late to the Party (in which the destination is known because of a Distress Signal). See also Send in the Search Team. The journey to get there is usually glossed over in that trope. For the exact opposite of this trope, see Walk Into Mordor; in which the destination is pre-determined, and there is no set path, such as a river, to follow—only obstacles—such as Climbing the Cliffs of Insanity.
Compare Don't Go in The Woods and Horrible Camping Trip, both of which hold that camping trips in the woods never seem to turn out all that well either (though they turn out worse in the former than the latter...) If the destination is merely a MacGuffin, its Going to See the Elephant.
In this trope, the journey is more psychological than physical, although it can also be both. However, it almost always involves a pre-set route such as a river to an unknown destination.
- Apocalypse Now (which Francis Ford Copolla based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness).
- The production of the film, too.
- Actually, the river in that one is the path between civilization and chaos, with the boat being order and the jungle being chaos. People either learn to swim in the rivers of madness or go mad or get killed messily.
- Coppola has stated that the characters encounter increasingly primitive conditions the further upriver they go, to some extent becoming more primitive themselves.
- John Carter's, Dejah's, and Sola's river journey leads them to an important revelation, but also gets them ambushed by Warhoons.
- Aguirre, the Wrath of God with a very insane Klaus Kinski being overrun by monkeys on a sinking raft.
- Werner Herzog in general likes to explore nature's savagery and indifference to human survival. See also Grizzly Man, set in the same territory as Into the Wild.
- Another Klaus Kinski example, and one fitting the entire "obsession and insanity" theme of this trope, is the movie Fitzcarraldo. Kinski plays Peruvian rubber baron Ryan Sweeney "Fitzcarraldo" FitzGerald (loosely based on the historical Carlos Fitzcarrald), who drags a steamership overland just so he could build a new rubber plantation on a previously unreachable river, regardless of the cost (in real life the ship was disassembled and reassembled to assist in the portage, using slave labour). Oh, and he was one of the founders of Manaus, Brazil.
- See also Herzog's documentary Wings of Hope, about a girl who was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Amazon and walked for ten days out of the jungle - and then 30 years later, Herzog brings her back to retrace her steps. Oh, and 'Little Dieter Needs To Fly/Rescue Dawn. Yeah, Herzog really likes this trope.
- Dead Man: The eponymous title character is taken to the "river made of waters".
- Black Robe: it's no spoiler to say the Jesuit priest goes native. Portrayed as a good thing.
- The Conquistador story arc of The Fountain (probably inspired by Aguirre)
- The African Queen is an amusing example - the actual film has the characters not going mad, and instead falling in love and defeating the Germans (what, you expected a spoiler for that? It was during the Hays Code, there was literally no legal way to have a Downer Ending, given the premise), but according to Katherine Hepburn's book, the making of the film took its cast and crew through the sort of arc this trope normally describes.
- The River Wild
- The movie Predator seems to have a similar aspect.
- Even lighthearted adventure movies run into the Inevitable Waterfall which inevitably crashes their boat.
- There isn't a river but there is an Amazonian jungle and some really misguided and disturbed people in the film and novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord.
- In Rambo (the fourth movie), Christian missionaries hire/convince Rambo to take them up the river into Burma where they can help villagers with medical supplies, dental exams, and religion, but their journey is doomed from the start, beginning with Rambo killing a gunboat full of soldiers and ending with the village being raided and the missionaries being taken prisoner.
- The 1983 movie Antarctica is based on a 1958 Japanese expedition: two dogs really survived by themselves for one full year in Antarctica and recognized their master when he came back: tough dogs.
- Subverted in Pirates of the Caribbean 2, when Capt. Sparrow flees upriver into the jungle in order to escape the Kraken. Sure, he encounters cannibals and dangerous voodoo gods, but he seems to be in his element nonetheless.
Gibbs: Let's put some distance between us and this island, and head out to open sea.
- In Without A Paddle, the characters get lost, lose their boat and supplies, and are attacked and pursued by a bear and violent locals.
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (of course).
- Into the Wild is a partial example. The river is more of an obstacle than anything, and the kid is a Wide-Eyed Idealist who wants to go as far away from humanity as possible and is doomed from the outset. Instead of being trapped on a boat, he ends up trapped in a bus.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Subverted in that the river voyage appears indeed to be heading towards disaster, as Huck and Jim miss their turn towards freedom and are carried helplessly down the Big Muddy towards the slave markets of the Mississippi Delta, only to turn into a farce at the end.
- Constantly subverted in Lord of the Rings, as the characters explicitly go out of their way to avoid the rivers, roads, or even straight passages whenever possible, with the strong impression that something bad would happen to them if they followed the normally prescribed route.
- Although they do actually journey for a considerable distance down the Great River.
- During which they are tracked the whole way and shot at by arrows, Apocalypse-Now style. We also see Boromir get more and more unstable en route (in the book, it's because of Aragorn's uncertainty about where they are going). Legolas noted that they had to get off the river; at that point they were just trying to outrace the enemy. When Boromir's madness broke up the Fellowship, he inadvertently saved the mission. (Ironically, Gandalf had planned to break up all along and send the decoy hobbits to Minas Tirith.)
- The first and third book of The Dark Tower series: although Roland is following The Path of the Beam instead of a river.
- In the Swan's War trilogy the heroes travel down the river and to adventure the whole first book. They actually do much good in the standard epic fantasy way, but a river spirit influences one of them and he never really recovers and dies one year later by what is implied to be suicide.
- The horror novel The Ruins by Scott Smith starts out with a group of twenty-somethings on vacation at the beach who decide to explore some old ruins inland. In The Movie, all but one of them die thanks to a sadistic, man-eating vine. In the book, they all die.
- There is a book called Who Is The River that is about two guys going up a river in South America. The point of the trip was to find a set of ruins and make their careers. It didn't work.
- In the Seventh Sword trilogy, there is only one river and this river connects all the cities of the world. Because the river symbolizes the power of the goddess that controls the planet, the river can flow in either direction and ships that travel on her waters may drop anchor in one location at night and mysteriously re-appear elsewhere by morning. Not only that, but the river is inhabited by flesh-eating fish that appear within seconds of someone entering the water.
- In the Shirl Henke novel The River Nymph, the male protagonist grows darker and darker in character as the titular riverboat goes ever farther up the Missouri River and into the wilderness of the American frontier.
- The journey of the City in The Inverted World. For over two hundred years, the massive mobile City has been pulling itself in pursuit of the optimum. It is a truly Sisyphean effort: even if the City reaches optimum, they cannot rest, because optimum is always moving. The City is doomed to struggle to move 1/10 a mile a day, every day, forever; an unending pursuit of the unattainable.
- And in the novel version, geography eventually renders the goal literally unattainable.
- The second expedition in the novel Water Music by T.C. Boyle about real-life scottish adventurer Mungo Park and his search for the Niger. He found the river on his first expedition, but he came back for another expedition to find out where it ends.
- In Jasper Fforde's One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Thursday gets to go on a Genre Savvy one of these.
- In The Red Tent, Jacob crosses a fast river ahead of his family and servants, and has his famed vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder or staircase, as well as an alleged fight with one (which results in his thigh being dislocated.) He is shown to have a fever, and the other characters take his visions as delirium. This is an important point, as it is essentially where Jacob (fearful from his unexpected Vision Quest, and later jealous of his wealthy twin brother Esau) starts to listen to Simon and Levi's influence and become corrupt and greedy.
- The Priest's Tale from Hyperion is a lot like this: the journals of a man hiking out into the most deserted wilderness of an alien planet, only for things to get progressively more insane.
Live Action TV
- Parodied in The Goodies episode "The Lost Tribe".
- The series The River.
- I Shouldn't Be Alive had "Escape From the Amazon". Only two of the explorers were found.
- Oregon Trail is the PC game version of this trope. Especially if you're doing a Let's Play and you leave the decision to popular vote, thanks to Super Drowning Skills.
"That's how I learned what it means to be an American. To embrace the pioneer spirit, shoot everything that moves, drown my family in a river, and die of starvation somewhere in the midwest."
- Its tropical twin The Amazon Trail also counts. And yes, you travel up the Amazon river. In a canoe.
- Along the way, the encounter with Lope de Aguirre (see below) plays kind of like a brief, kid-friendly version of Apocalypse Now.
- Let's Go Find El Dorado, paying homage to Oregon Trail, combines the crossing of rivers and the catching of dysentery. If your wagon so much as touches water for more than a fraction of a second, your party members will get sick.
- Part two of Jeff Vogel's Exile series has a section where your party must cross over a series of underground waterfalls, each one taking away some of your food. Eventually, a really big waterfall will make you lose all your remaining food, forcing you to scavenge (usually fighting off monsters along the way) or face starvation. It's also worth mentioning that there are no shops or training avaliable along the way, and no way to identify the items you find (and you probably won't have enough space to take everything you find). Oh, and the caverns you pass are full of dangerous monsters...
- The second level in the NES game of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an Unexpected Gameplay Change consisting of a vertical-scrolling river raft ride.
- Sir Ernest Shackleton's Real Life expedition to the Antarctic. Partially averted in that everyone survived and Shackleton was forced to travel the last leg by himself, over sheer cliffs because they crash landed on the wrong side of the island of South Georgia, the only source of possible help for 5,000 miles in any direction.
- When Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen raced to be the first expedition to reach the south pole, Scott's expedition found the Norwegian flag waiting for them. Then Scott's entire team died from scurvy on the way back.
- Several Real Life expeditions into Darkest Africa inspired this trope, most notably Emin Bey's expedition to Equatoria, a vast and inaccessible swamp on the headwaters of the Nile. (A German-Jewish geographer who had been appointed Bey of the Turkish Empire, he claimed the region for either England, Egypt, or Germany, it's not clear which.)
- After "discovering" Dr. Livingstone (who was doing just fine without him), the "journalist" Henry M. Stanley made a name for himself penetrating the headwaters of the Congo in the service of King Leopold of Belgium, executing uncooperative natives along the way, and claiming the entire Congo basin for Leopold's personal rubber fiefdom. His expedition is what inspired Conrad to write his book, after it came out what Leopold's men were actually doing in Stanleyville.
- Also Stanley's expedition to rescue the above-mentioned Emin.
- There were many, many doomed voyages into the interior of Australia, filled with some of the harshest desert known to man and landscape utterly foreign to Europeans. One notable mention was Charles Sturt, who nearly died multiple times and even took a boat with him to settle the debate about if Australia had an inland sea. Many Australian explorers barely came back alive and others died miserable lonely deaths.
- Ironic, considering that surviving comfortably in the outback is perfectly possible, but they were too proud to ask survival tips from the natives. (Perhaps not really ironic, just stupid.)
- Actual irony: There was an inland sea-Stuart and his fellows were just about 100 million years too late.
- The first explorers to take a boat down the Grand Canyon: Half of them died.
- Deliverance was based on the author's real-life experiences rafting in Appalachia. Massively inverted in that the locals were incredibly helpful, and were excited to hear he was writing a book about the area!
- Apropos of a related trope, the Donner Party is worth mentioning. Basically, a group of pioneers set out for California, ended up snowbound in the Sierra Nevada, and resorted to cannibalism, eating the corpses of those who died.
- The first Western voyage up the Mekong River in Southeast Asia was pretty difficult, partly because the river isn't actually navigable up most of its length, and partly because most of the crew repeatedly caught tropical diseases.
- The ill-fated Narvaez expedition of would-be Spanish conquistadors in the 1520s. Despite suffering from serious food and supply shortages and a near shipwreck prior to even leaving their base on the island of Cuba, and drifting over a thousand miles away from their intended destination, the expedition's leaders decided to go a-conquering anyway - with predictable results. Amazingly, after being stranded in the wilderness of what is now western Florida, enduring another series of shipwrecks on a few homemade rafts and being captured by a dozen or so successive groups of Native Americans, 4 of the expedition's original 300 members managed to wash up on the Texas shore and walk over 1700 miles to Spanish-occupied Mexico. Almost too surreal to be believed, but check out the whole story on That Other Wiki
- The real life Lope de Aguirre who mutinied against his leaders during an expedition to find Eldorado (in itself a goal that fulfills this trope), and then led the soldiers and Native American slaves left alive on a hundred day march through the jungle to capture the main Spanish settlements in Venezuela, Panama, and Peru. At first relatively successful, the Spanish army offered free pardons to any of Aguirre's soldiers who would desert, at which they all did, leaving him to die.