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In the mid-80's two young climbers attempted to reach the summit of
Siula Grande in Peru - a feat that had previously been attempted but
never achieved. With an extra man looking after base camp, Simon and
Joe set off to scale the mount in one long push over several days. The
peak is reached, however on the descent Joe falls and breaks his leg.
Despite what it means, the two continue with Simon letting Joe out on a
rope for 300 feet, then descending to join him and so on. However when
Joe goes out over an overhang with no way of climbing back up, Simon
makes the decision to cut the rope. Joe falls into a crevice and Simon,
assuming him dead, continues back down. Joe however survives the fall
and was lucky to hit a ledge in the crevice. This is the story of how
he got back down.
Yet another reason to lament the closing of Film Four's doors, this film is the cinematic equivalent of sitting listening to someone tell you an amazing story in their own words. The film is acted out in dramatised scenes but it is Joe's and Simon's words over the top that really will keep you hanging on. The dramatised scenes though, are still wonderful, it is very easy to forget that this was not somehow filmed at the time, not only do they look very, very real but they also look spectacular; when Joe talks about the imposing crevice he was in, the pictures on screen did much better at translating that into visuals than my non-mountaineering imagination could have done.
The two actors in the roles of Joe and Simon do a great job; like I said, it is very easy to forget they are actors or that this is a replay for the camera. However the real people are more interesting and it is they that drive the film. To hear Joe talk about what he did and felt puts so much more bone on the story that any Hollywood version could have managed. He is a great guy and I can only imagine what he went through. Simon on the other hand is more guarded. He never really goes below the facts, whereas I know he has issues underneath as he apparently was not as calm as he is on camera during the making of the film. The film ends with some captions - one of which being that Simon came under great criticism for cutting the rope from other climbers. However the talking heads bit never even touches the surface of what Simon had to go through after they all got home - in a way that would have been just as interesting a part of the film as what Joe went through.
As the story unfolds it is impossible not to sit shaking your head in amazement. At the start I was like everyone else 'why would you do this stuff for fun' etc, and I still think that, but the story is so gripping that it is impossible to think of anything else. The running time is generous and allows Simon to tell his story properly, it is amazing and the sense of impossible odds and the sheer pain involved is brought to the audience very well - even with a handful of people in the audience gasps and 'ah's' were very audible. Overall this film is more dramatic than any Hollywood drama I have seen in a long time. It is not without flaw but it is difficult to sit and just watch it - I was enthralled by it, a true dramatic human story that never let me get bored or distracted. By the end, Simon has put forward his many emotions so well that I was very moved. The only think that would have made this film better would have been a bit more of searching inside himself by Joe in the final 15 minutes, in my heart I doubt if I could ever forgive myself and I wonder how he did or if he did.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A recent article on "Touching the Void" focused on the reactions of
mountaineers to films about their often deadly avocation. Many commented
that virtually no movie dealing with mountain climbing felt real to them. I
suspect that Kevin MacDonald's gripping part re-enactment, part-documentary
may be the rare exception that will capture the interest of amateur and
professional mountaineers. (I haven't climbed since 1966 when I and two
fellow Army officers set the record for summiting Seoul, Korea's Namsan from
its almost inaccessible east face.)
Simon, a very experienced climber, and Joe, a younger devotee, sought to be the first to reach the top of Peru's Siula Grande through a forbidding and unconquered approach. Before heading to a remote location to establish a base camp they picked up Richard, a traveler with no experience or interest in climbing but a hale-fellow-well-met willing to babysit the camp while the two adventurers climbed.
Getting to the top of the summit via an often near-sheer face was daunting enough and the duo made it. The trip back was the disaster. As one commented, eighty percent of injuries and deaths occur on the way down. Joe took a fall sustaining a very serious leg injury causing limited mobility, intractable pain and major damage. Simon figured out a way for the two to continue their descent but Joe later went crashing over the side and hung helplessly swinging in the air, his dead weight immobilizing Simon. Arguably both would have perished if this condition continued.
In what remains a roiling full-fledged controversy amongst the mountaineering fraternity, Simon believed he could only save his life by cutting the rope from which Joe, with whom he could not communicate, dangled. The rope cut, Simon made his way back to base camp sure that his companion was dead. Simon's descent was perilous but compared to the still living Joe's evolving ordeal it was a walk in the park.
Over almost a week, Joe survived on no food, virtually no water and sheer guts and determination to live. His trip down the mountain to within range of the tent where his weak voice was heard by the about to decamp climber and assistant is a truly unique and compelling survivor story, one of the most dramatic ever brought to film.
Both the real climbers and Richard are narrators whose story unfolds between re-enactments by non-speaking but truly athletic actors. The make-up crew did wonders here to capture the brutal battering each sustained, especially Joe, during the climb and descent. The photography is magnificent.
Joe has always maintained that he too would have cut the rope had his position and Simon's been reversed but his open and repeated acceptance of Simon's desperate act has been rejected by many mountaineers. I was particularly fascinated by this issue since as a law professor I begin my Criminal Law course, as do very many colleagues, with the very issue of necessity as a justification for one person to save his life by sacrificing the lives of others (no mountains but two celebrated cases involving the sea, one English, the other American, provide very similar moral and legal dilemmas to Simon and Joe's excruciating situation). While no legal action ensued from the Peru near tragedy, the same issues are there and remain for viewers to think about and discuss.
Both Joe and Simon continue to climb, Joe after six operations to his shattered leg. Their accomplishment in scaling Siula Grande has not to date been duplicated. That must give each extraordinary satisfaction.
This film is almost in a class of its own and I suspect it will become a talking point for climbers. For today's audience, attention was rapt and sighs and gasps escaped involuntarily as the climbers, and Joe especially, encountered one near fatal obstacle after the other.
This film describes the true story of a climbing accident in South America
in 1985, using dramatisation with voice-overs and interview excerpts from
the three British men who were actually involved. It may sound boring, but I
cannot stress this enough: this film is much more tense, and nail-bitingly
gripping, than any Hollywood action movie - because you know that everything
you're seeing and hearing really did happen to these guys.
The story itself is incredible. It will redefine for you the capabilities of the human mind and body. There is action, sadness, hope, and even brilliant humour in places.
Please go and see this film; you won't regret it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Touching the Void tells the story of Simon and Joe; two mountain
climbers whose trip to Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes ended in
tragedy. I had never heard of either one of these men or their story
before watching this film, but in the mountaineering world, they are
the stuff of legend. I don't doubt that I'm not the only one to never
have heard of them, so all in all, I think that this is a story that
needs to be told. The story itself has all the ingredients of a
successful human drama - it's gripping, exciting, realistic,
continually intriguing, and overall it makes for a nice film. Carrying
on with the recent trend that was kicked off with Bowling for
Columbine, Touching the Void is filmed in a documentary style. This is
definitely to the film's credit; the documentary style allows the
auteur to tell a story and not have to worry about dramatics and so
fourth. The documentary style is also detached in nature, so it allows
the audience to make up their own mind about the events that they see
on screen, and with a story as provocative as this one; that's what you
want. The film is told from the men's points of view as well as seeing
actors portray what happened on screen, and this allows the story to be
effectively shown with an insight into their thoughts as well, which
works a treat in my opinion.
The story is one of intense courage and decision making in a situation where every decision is a bad one. The major provocative point comes from the decision that Simon makes when he chooses to cut his partner (Joe) off, causing him to fall down a ravine. In my opinion, Simon did the right thing. The only other choice was to not cut him off, and get pulled down himself; so it's Simon and Joe, or just Joe. I don't even think there's a debate. What did get me about Simon's character, however, was his attitude towards his partner's injury. He's just seen him fall down and break his leg, and his first thought is that if he falls off the cliff, he'll be able to go down alone, which would be much easier than hoisting Joe down with him. I don't know about you, but that's not the sort of partner I would want on a high-risk mountaineering trip. Not only that; but he didn't even check on the well being of his friend in the morning after the fall; I realize that his chances of survival are unlikely, but I would expect him to still check because you never know. And then, just to top it off, on his way down the mountain; he's debating with himself whether or not to tell what really happened or just make something up! And just for a final shock; he didn't make a better story up! I found his lack of caring to be rather shocking.
The main story of the film, however, is not Simon's but Joe's; which is an absolutely amazing story of human courage. This man was not only extremely frightened as he was in the middle of nowhere on his own with no way to get help, but he also had to toil with a broken leg and extreme dehydration. The agony he must have been in is unimaginable, and yet he somehow managed to drag himself all the way down the mountain to safety. The man deserves a medal. The film allows the audience to stay with him throughout his ordeal; we really feel his pain and it makes the images on screen undoubtedly powerful. Had the film have been filmed in dramatics, without the documentary, it wouldn't have managed the same effect; and that is testament to the good decision to film it as a documentary. Despite the nature of the story, it also manages to be amusing at times, with Joe telling the audiences the thoughts of a doomed man, and a very surreal sequence involving Boney M. This story shows human courage like no other film I've ever seen, and what's more; it's all true and it all feels very real as well - it's almost like you're watching the actual events.
Overall, Touching the Void is an incredible cinematic experience. There isn't another film quite like this one and it really does have to be seen to be believed. Highly recommended viewing for all.
There are exceptions, but mountaineering movies fall roughly into two
classes; overblown, unrealistic cliffhanging (in more than one sense)
dramas ('Eiger Sanction', 'K2', 'Cliffhanger', 'Vertical Limit') and
rather trite descriptive documentaries often seen as padding for the
'National Geographic' channel schedules, although Jon Krakaur's 'Into
Thin Air' managed to combine the worst of both worlds. Both classes
have in common (usually) Gortex gear, superb mountain scenery and
splendid cinematography. What distinguishes this survival story is that
it has (sorry about this) high drama, an understated style and absolute
authenticity. The actual principals, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, and
Richard Hawkins the non-climber base camp minder, narrate their story
as it is re-enacted, partly at the original site in Peru (though some
filming was done in the European Alps), while actors (with very few
lines to say) re-enact the saga of the Siula West Face climb. It all
hangs together beautifully; and I was rapt from go to whoa. My
disbelief was entirely suspended.
Even documentaries are stories rather than fact (whatever that is) and this story is superbly told, for which director Kevin Macdonald can take full credit, though perhaps one should also thank Simon Yates and Joe Simpson for telling us their stories. One critic has taken the director to task in not dwelling on the moral issues involved the cutting the rope bit. No mountaineering drama is without one of these but here it actually happened. That critic has missed the point the approach here is 'be your own judge'.
This film manages to appeal both to mountaineers (a small but highly critical audience) and non-mountaineers. As a (semi-retired) and undistinguished member of the former group, I found few nits to pick, though a more extended explanation of the difference between Alpine-style and Expedition climbing would help to show non-mountaineers that it wasn't a suicide attempt (though speaking for myself I wouldn't have tried it with less than four in the party). And as the film was about a climb that went wrong, the joy of climbing, which is not easy to explain to non-mountaineers was rather overshadowed by Joe's suffering as he dragged himself, leg broken, down the mountain. But never have I seen a more graphic illustration of the adage 'never give up'. Lie down to die and you will die. Joe and the Texan doctor on Everest (see 'Into Thin Air') both should have died, yet they survived. In the doctor's case it seems to have been some primeval instinct (he was not a mountaineer). In Joe's case he seems to have treated survival as a challenge and focused his thoughts accordingly ('I thought, in twenty minutes I'll be at the next rock'). I winced every time his broken leg hit something.
To sum up this is a great film, which will live long in your memory, climber or non-climber.
P.S. Simon was only 20 or so at the time, Joe a more mature 25. Both have kept climbing, though significantly not together.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Based on the best-selling book of the same name, Kevin Macdonald's
docu-drama Touching the Void recreates the 1985 experience of Joe Simpson
and Simon Yates, two British mountaineers attempting to climb the Siula
Grande Mountains of Peru, a mountain range no one had ever succeeded in
scaling before. The film tells the story of how Simpson, alone at 21,000
feet -- with a broken leg, dehydrated, and a step away from death, pushed
his broken body beyond the limits of what he knew to be possible in order to
survive. Oscar-winning director of One Day in September, Macdonald uses
actors Brendan Mackay (Simpson) and Nicholas Aaron (Yates) to recreate the
adventure while the real climbers provide a running commentary.
After ascending the west face of the mountain in 3 1/2 days using the "purest" style of climbing (sleeping in ice caves rather than setting up base camps along the way), the descent is treacherous as Simpson misses a step and his lower leg is driven into his kneecap. Tied together by a rope, Yates begins lowering his partner downward in the darkness, 300 feet at a time while Simpson is in excruciating pain. Progress is halted when Simpson is lowered into a crevasse and left dangling in mid-air, unable to signal his companion. Yates believes him to be dead and makes a crucial and controversial decision to cut the rope, leaving his partner alone and without support. Simpson has never blamed Yates for his decision and has gone to great lengths in his book and in interviews to defend Simon whose character has been continually under attack since that fateful day.
The film was shot in authentic locations in the Andes and the Alps, and the result is a sense of being there, experiencing the pitiless forces of nature. Though the outcome is preordained, how the two friends managed to survive their ordeal provides more than enough heart-pounding suspense. The film shows Simpson trying to knot a rope with frozen fingers and guzzling the first muddy water he finds to counter the effects of severe dehydration. One of the most intriguing sequences shows the climber in a semi-delirious state listening in his mind to the sound of Boney M's Brown Girl in the Ring.
While there is little in the way of spiritual epiphany (Simpson candidly discusses his atheism), there is an unmistakable feeling that both men have been strengthened by their shared ordeal. Simpson touches the void within him, an emptiness that compels him to keep going only because he "wanted to be with someone when I died". Reaching base camp in the middle of the night, he calls out but no one answers, `When no one answered the call", he says, "I lost something. I lost me.' Then, when Simon and Richard rescue him, the thing he remembers most is the feeling of being held. Though he did not experience a higher power guiding him, he does sense a freedom from the world's clutter that makes him feel more alive. Touching the Void is a tale of remarkable courage and determination that touches the place within ourselves that tells us that miracles can occur in our life if we are able to go beyond what we thought was possible and act as if our life depends on the result.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
You'll be lucky if you have any cuticles left by the time you've finished
watching `Touching the Void,' a nail-biting documentary that chronicles a
true-life tale of miraculous survival. In 1985, two experienced mountain
climbers, Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, set out to scale a peak in the
Peruvian Andes. Although they successfully reached the summit, disaster
struck as they were making their way back down. In the midst of a blinding
blizzard, Joe slipped and broke his leg. The film, based on the book by Joe
Simpson himself, recounts the grueling ordeal both men underwent in their
efforts to make it back to their base camp alive.
To fully dramatize the experience, director Kevin MacDonald filmed one-on-one interviews with the two survivors (as well as a third companion who didn't go up the mountain with them) commenting and reflecting on the event, then employed actors to reenact the event as it originally happened. MacDonald has done an astonishing job capturing the edge-of-the-seat suspense inherent in the material, this despite the fact that we already know how it will all turn out. By plunging us directly into the heart of the action, we feel we are enduring every death-defying, heartbreaking moment right along with Joe and Simon. `Touching the Void' is, if nothing else, a tour-de-force of breathtaking cinematography and stunt work, one that makes us identify with the characters every step of the way.
Yet, for all its technical expertise, `Touching the Void' is, first and foremost, a human document, a testament to the endurance and survivability of both the human body and the human spirit. The amazing determination and perseverance demonstrated by the two men - especially by the then 25-year-old Joe as he struggles manfully, despite unendurable pain, to reach a place of safety - is inspiring even to those of us who do most of our adventuring from the comfort and safety of our living room armchair, a cold beer in hand. The film also reveals, through their actions and their words twenty some years later, the character of the two men. Simon has to live with the fact that, at a crucial moment in the crisis, he cut Joe loose from his line, consigning his partner to probable death so that he himself could survive an action for which many fellow mountaineers later criticized Simon. Yet, never once either then or now does Joe join in that criticism. On the psychological level, we learn of the cavalcade of emotions and feelings Joe underwent in those moments of greatest desperation when he looked impending death square in the face. This film is as much an adventure of the mind as it is of the body. Paradoxically, at the same time as the film is showing us the indomitableness of the human spirit, it is reminding us how much we humans even the most daring among us are, ultimately, at the mercy of a far greater, impersonal and indifferent force known as Nature.
Thanks to the compelling, stranger-than-fiction quality of the tale and the technical brilliance used to re-create it, `Touching the Void' will have you chewing your fingernails down to a nub.
Awe-inspiring work by director Kevin Macdonald takes us with a minimum of
fuss to a corner of the Andes in Peru for this epic tale of endurance
against the elements.
After what appears to be a relatively rapid, routine conquering of a 22,000
foot peak, we are left contemplating what might be in store to fill out the
rest of the film. Suffice to say we are told that eighty per cent of
climbing accidents occur on the descent.
Harrowing times in the extreme soon present themselves, with amazing camera
work accompanied by stark human emotions as life-affecting decisions have to
be made in the harshest of conditions.
There are only three actors in this reconstruction of an actual climb made
in the 1980s. The original climbers themselves personally add to the
screenplay at appropriate moments, to what I believe is just the right
extent for maximum effect. We are made to wonder what drives a couple of
fit 25-year-olds to climb to such heights, in such conditions, with an
insufficient gas supply, no oxygen, and no backup team. But that is
sometimes the reckless nature of young people that age.
The viewer is left in no uncertain mind about the might of nature versus the insignificance of human effort. This is reinforced in most spectacular fashion by the use of zoom photography, underlining the sheer size of the Andes mountains. What does make the difference, though, is the strength of the human will, particularly when it comes to a matter of very survival. In this case we are given to believe this is largely driven by the fear of dying alone, but I found myself trying to identify what other motives might have been present in such dire circumstances. Considering the semi-documentary nature of the film, and the conditions under which it was made, I cannot rate Touching the Void less than 9 out of 10. It had me on the edge of my seat until the final credits.
Even for those who cannot understand why anyone would attempt to risk their life to climb a peak that most will never even know about, this film is a true eye-opener. It will show you the part of climbing that many amateurs such as I will only read about..and now, through dramatic reenactments as described by the survivors, see in this film. The beauty of the mountain is juxtaposed in tense dramatic fashion by the two climbers struggle to survive. In pitting human against nature, it will force the viewer to confront themselves with the fundamental principle of American culture--the morality of self-interested, rational behavior. As the law prof reviewer suggested, you may come away from this film with a different outlook on "acceptable" behavior in an ethical sense.
The story of what happens when two British climbers try to reach the top of
a previous unclimbed mountain is one of the most spellbinding films in
years. A hybrid of talking heads and re-enactments this movie is one of the
best films (on mountain climbing) ever made. You'll forgive me but its hard
not to speak in terms like, best, greatest, ect when you talk about this
film. I think its all best summed up by the term, "WOW!!!"
I can only imagine what this would be like on a big screen, where the sense of scale would be overwhelming. Not having been able to see this on a big screen I've had to make due with the DVD, which contains an extra called "What happened next..." which is what you'll want to know once the credits start to roll.
My only complaint, and its a small one, is that the pace of the second half could be a bit tighter, other wise this is simply a great great movie.
9 out of 10.
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