DVD Review of Touching The Void
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/27/05
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 as well.
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 Joe’s 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 trio’s 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 Simon’s 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 Joe’s adventure a little less harrowing, and removed a bit of the uncaring stigma that Simon seems to have little problem with.
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 one’s 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, and grossly 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 don’t 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. It’s in those fleeting moments that the viewer gets why this film was.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 4/05 Hackwriters website.]
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