The International Writers Magazine: Review
The closer you are to death. The more you
realize you are alive
The simplest of words can sometimes
convey far more than the most elaborate action scenes. This runs
counter to the whole a picture is worth a thousand words,
yet is nonetheless true.
This film is a docudrama
about two young British mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who
in 1985 decided to become the first men to ever scale a treacherous
Andean peak in Peru called Siula Grande. They left for their task with
a third climber who was to wait at their base camp- Richard Hawking.
The film documents the weeklong adventure Joe and Simon had.
The first three days were rather uneventful, and the duo reached the
summit. It was on the way down that trouble hit. Freak storms were the
first augur of bad things to come. Then Joe broke his leg and Simon
was left to innovate a technique to lower his partner down the mountainside
in 150 foot increments. Then, a second accident befell the duo. In a
blizzard, Simon lowered Joe over an overhang that hung over a massive
crevasse. When Joe could not signal what had occurred Simon was left
in the precarious position of being unable to lift his partner back,
and slowly being dragged down the face himself. After a few hours with
no signal from Joe Simon made a fateful decision to cut the rope to
Joe, assuming he had died and was a dead weight, lest he face sure death
Joe fell into the crevasse, where he dangled for hours. The next
morning, a shaken Simon looked in vain, and assumed his partner had
died. Simon made it back to the base camp, nearly dead from frostbite,
and needed a few days to recover physically and emotionally with Richard.
Joe, meanwhile, after much frustration, lowered himself into the crevasse
and made his way out, then spent several days painfully eking his way
down the mountain with an improvised splint, over glaciers and rock
fields. The last night that Simon and Richard were at camp they heard
Joes cries and were shocked that he survived.
However, what could have easily become a cheesy action film is
instead a taut film where the emotions of the real trios narration
juxtaposes well with staged recreations. Most telling is a scene where
Joe recounts that at his worst he still never fell back into the trap
of praying to a god to rescue him. His own reasoned faith in his own
abilities is what ultimately saved his life.
The film is based upon a best-selling memoir of the same name
by Joe Simpson, which he wrote to exonerate Simons reputation,
which suffered terribly as he became known as the guy who cut
the rope on his partner. As I watched the film I got the odd sensation
that the film was sort of a metaphor for the current war in Iraq- with
Joe as Iraq and Simon as America. Most folk say it would be inhuman
to cut the rope, to let the injured, frail party fend for themselves,
yet- as in Vietnam- that would have been the wisest action. Far better,
certainly than both parties falling off the side of a mountain to certain
doom. Yet, Joe dedicated his book to Simon, who risked his life initially
when he could have easily left Joe to his death without lowering him
even once, and says he would have cut the rope were the situations reversed.
Yet, a part of me wonders why he and Richard did not at least go partway
back up the mountain, in the few days Simon waited in camp. That would
have made Joes adventure a little less harrowing, and removed
a bit of the uncaring stigma that Simon seems to have little problem
The recreations are top-notch, and even though the viewer knows
in advance that all the parties survived, the tale is so epic, and archetypal
in its man conquers nature against all odds aspect that
ones eyes are never diverted. Even failing that fact there are
plenty of shots that only make one gape in amazement as to what lengths
the filmmakers had to go to get the shot. Director Kevin McDonald treats
the three adventurers with respect, even though, in retrospect they
were young and foolhardy, andgrossly ill-prepared. Yet, even these facts
do little to dampen the way the film approaches its tale. Part of that
is because the protagonists are British, and almost by nature are self-deprecating.
One can only imagine the Rambo-like narrative that would accompany a
film about gung-ho American mountaineers encountering dangers.
Another aspect of note is that save for a few precious lines
the actors who portray the trio (Nicholas Aaron as Simon Yates, Brendan
Mackey as Joe, and Ollie Ryall as Richard) are virtually in a silent
film, yet they show how much information about a character and situation
can be conveyed without words. This lends a detachment that is echoed
in the narration from years later by the actual participants, one which
allows for depth and reflection.
As for the extras? There are several featurettes on the making
of the film, and a return to the mountain, and what happened after the
film ended. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit gleaned is how blasé
Simon is about the whole experience. Whether this is because he was
vilified in the British press for cutting the rope or having his mountaineering
life defined by one expedition I dont know. But, the fact that
he and Joe are revealed as never having been close, before or after
their adventure, lends a reviewing of the film some insight and poignance,
as well as possible motivation?
Regardless, this is a terrific film as documentary and adventure.
A viewer can understand why these adventurers do what they do, as well
as recoil from it. Watching Joe Simpson narrate his tale you can see
him do both at once, sometimes. Its in those fleeting moments
that the viewer gets why this film was.
© Dan Schnieder April 2005
all rights reserved