Gut-wrenching true story behind Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours

Back in 2010, the film 127 Hours was a major box office success.

It was both a critical and commercial hit, receiving standing ovations and grossing $60.7million (£43.1m) – despite a limited release in the US.

Starring actor James Franco, the story of outdoors fanatic Aron Ralston's desperate bid for freedom after getting trapped by a boulder in an isolated Utah canyon was, as one reviewer described it, as "gut-wrenching as it is inspirational".

It tells the tale of the physical and mental challenges Ralston faces while stranded alone for – you guessed it – 127 hours.

The now infamous scene where Franco has to cut off his own arm to escape even caused several viewers needing medical attention.

Even the trailer reportedly made people feel ill.

Ahead of its release, The Huffington Post wrote it "has gotten audiences fainting, vomiting and worse in numbers unseen since The Exorcist – and the movie has not even hit theaters yet."

But what made Danny Boyle's incredibly harrowing story all the more disturbing was that it was based on a true story.

It was based on the now-45-year-old's memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place, in which he recounts the ordeal in graphic detail.

But just how 'true' really was it? After all, films are meant to dramatise life – not replicate it, right?

Think again.

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Ralston spent more than five days trapped inside a slot canyon after a boulder landed on his arm. He was forced to drink his own urine to survive – and yes – his was forced to amputate his own arm.

It was so realistic, in fact, that after watching the film, Ralston declared it was "so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama," adding it was "the best film ever made."

So how did this gruesome tale of struggle and survival against the odds unfold?

Before the incident in 2003, Ralston was a mechanical engineer from Denver, Colorado in the US.

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But after five years working, he realised the corporate world wasn't for him.

So, he quit his job to spend more time mountaineering.

In 2002, he moved to Aspen in the state's Rocky Mountains region a year earlier to climb full-time.

He dreamed of climbing North America's highest peak – Denali in Alaska – as well as all 59 Colorado mountains that were more than 14,000ft tall – known as the "fourteeners".

To make things more difficult, he hoped to them all alone and in winter – something that had never been done before.

But the warning signs that something bad was on the horizon were becoming clear.

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In February 2003, he almost died after being buried up to his neck in snow during an avalanche while backcountry skiing.

"It was horrible. It should have killed us," Ralston later said.

Surprisingly, instead of putting Ralston off tackling hazardous terrain, it spurred him on even more.

He started climbing and exploring solo.

Just two months after the near-death experience, he traveled to Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah.

He spent the night in his truck before cycling 15 miles to Bluejohn Canyon, an 11-mile-long gorge, with some openings just three-feet wide, in the morning.

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Later that afternoon, as he descended into the canyon, a huge rock above him came toppling down.

Ralston fell and his right hand became lodged between the canyon wall and the 363kg boulder, leaving him trapped 100 feet below the desert surface and 20 miles from the nearest road.

He hadn’t told anyone about his climbing plans – and he couldn't signal for help. All he had to eat was two burritos, some candy bars and a bottle of water.

He desperately tried to release his arm by chipping away at the boulder, but it wouldn't budge.

After his water supply ran out, he was forced to drink his own urine to stay alive.

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Distraught and delirious, Ralston knew the only way to escape was to cut his arm off.

He experimented with different tourniquets and even made several superficial cuts to test his cheap multi-tool knives’ sharpness.

He carved his name into the canyon wall, along with his birthdate, the day's date – his presumed date of death – and the letters 'RIP'.

He also filmed a series of goodbyes to loved ones on his video camera and tried to get some sleep.

That night, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, Ralston dreamt of himself playing with a child with just half of his right arm.

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Later, he said the dream had been a sign that he would survive and have a family.

With a newfound sense of determination, he threw himself into survival mode.

The dream had also left Ralston with an epiphany – he didn’t have to cut through his bones. He could break them instead.

He managed to break his ulna and his radius using the torque from his trapped arm.

After the bones were disconnected, he fashioned a tourniquet from the tubing of his water bottle to cut off his circulation.

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Then, he had to use a cheap, dull, two-inch knife to cut through his skin and muscle, and a pair of pliers to cut through his tendons.

He left his arteries for last, knowing that after he severed them he wouldn’t have much time.

“All the desires, joys, and euphorias of a future life came rushing into me,” Ralston told a press conference. “Maybe this is how I handled the pain. I was so happy to be taking action.”

The entire process took an hour. Ralston lost 25% of his blood in the process.

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High on adrenaline and the sheer will to live, Ralston climbed out of the canyon, climbed down a 65-foot cliff and hiked six of the eight miles back to his car – all while being severely dehydrated, pouring with blood and one-handed.

Six miles in, he stumbled upon a family from the Netherlands who had been hiking in the canyon. They gave him food and water before alerting the authorities.

Four hours after amputating his arm, Ralston was rescued by medics.

Soon after, his severed arm and hand were retrieved by park rangers from beneath the boulder. It took 13 rangers, a hydraulic jack and a winch to free it. The arm was cremated and returned to Ralston.

Six months later, on his 28th birthday, he returned to the slot canyon and scattered the ashes where, he said, they belonged.

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And as it turned out, Ralston's vision of his future came true. He got married and now has two kids.

But despite his new responsibilities and missing a limb, his passion for rock climbing has continued.

In 2005, he became the first person to climb all 59 of Colorado's "fourteeners" alone and in the snow.

Ralston has previously praised the film depiction, admitting it was "brutally realistic".

The amputation scene – which, while in real life lasted about an hour, in the film only takes a few minutes – required three prosthetic limbs made to look exactly like Franco’s arm.

"I actually have a problem with blood. It’s only my arms; I have a problem with seeing blood on my arm," Franco told Vanity Fair.

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"So after the first day, I said to Danny, 'I think you got the real, unvarnished reaction there.'”

Franco wasn’t supposed to cut it all the way through, but he did it anyway. "I just did it, and I cut it off and I fell back, and I guess that’s the take that Danny used."

Ralston has praised 127 Hours for not only its loyalty to the facts of his true story, but its honest depiction of his emotions during the five-day ordeal.

He said he was glad the filmmakers included a smiling Franco when he realised he could break his own arm to escape.

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“I had to hound the team to make sure that smile made it into the film, but I’m really happy that it did,” Ralston said.

“You can see that smile. It really was a triumphant moment. I was smiling when I did it."

In 2011, 127 Hours was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Franco.

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