Reviews Of Man On Wire And The Wildest Dream: Conquest Of Everest
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/28/12
I recently watched two documentary films on adventurers, a 2010 film called The Wildest Dream: Conquest Of Everest, directed by Anthony Geffen, and 2008’s Academy Award Winning Best Documentary, James Marsh’s Man On Wire. It was one of those synchronicities that just happened while trolling about Netflix. Only in retrospect did I make a connection between the themes of the two films. Not only were they about adventurers, but in the former film, the film’s subject failed in his quest to be the first man to scale Mount Everest, yet is lauded in death, while, in the latter film, the film’s subject succeeded in his quest to tightrope walk between the North and South Towers of the now fallen World Trade Center, got fleeting fame, then fell into obscurity until this film resurrected his achievement.
The Wildest Dream: Conquest Of Everest is
a 93 minute long film, directed by Anthony Geffen, that touches at one of the
oldest dreams I had; to go rockhunting on an archaeological dig and find
something magical and wondrous. As a child, I recall reading in a science book
about Luos Agassiz and how he proved the fact that glaciers, indeed, do move, by
pinpointing the spot where a mountain climber was lost on an Alpine Peak,
predicting that the body would show up at the bottom of the glacier after a
certain number of years, only to find the body just as predicted. This film does
not open exactly in that manner, but it does open with modern mountain climber
Conrad Anker finding the body of Mount Everest legend George Mallory in 1999, 75
years after he and a colleague, Sandy Irvine, were lost and presumed dead on the
world’s tallest mountain. This pushes Anker to want to try and prove that
Mallory did reach the summit three decades earlier than Edmund Hillary. To do
so, Anker and a colleague of his own, attempt to reproduce Mallory’s ascent in
vintage 1920s gear.
The film then alternates between the modern quest, made in 2007, and the original quest of Mallory, via archival films, photos, and letters. What drives Anker is the fact that Mallory seems to have made his descent in twilight, when he slipped and broke a leg, then dies on the slope. This indicates that he must have made a bid for the top before descending, for he was last seen near the top on the morning of June 8th, 1924, just a few hundred feet from the top, but his body was found almost 3000 feet lower. The time of his death is ascertained by the fact that he was not wearing the sun visors needed to prevent whiteouts from ice glare. Also, Mallory had promised to plant his wife’s photo at the summit but the photo has never been found. Neither has Mallory’s climbing partner, Irvine.
The film has spectacular scenery, but the cinematography, by Chris Openshaw, is nothing great. Geffen does a good job of interweaving the two tales, but far too much time is taken up on the silly and narcissistic modern tale. More time spent on Mallory’s plight would have helped the film, while also lopping off 15-20 minutes of fat. The film is narrated by actor Liam Neeson. The film could have used, aside from a tighter focus on Mallory, a greater array of mountaineering expert and historian commentary but, overall, it is well suited to be an introduction to the life of a legendary hero of exploration’s Golden Age’s final years.
Precious little was golden about the 25 year old Philippe Petit’s August 7th, 1974 daredevil tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, 50 years after the death of George Mallory. I recall the day it happened, and for a few weeks afterwards, Petit’s name had dwarfed that of the legendary daredevil Evel Knievel’s. Then, he was forgotten. But, before the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center and the 2001 9/11 bombings and destruction of the towers, his ‘coup,’ as Petit calls it, was easily the most memorable event in the history of the two ugly towers.
The film goes in to great detail on how meticulously Petit and his cohorts planned the event, as well as earlier escapades at the Notre Dame Cathedral and a bridge in Sydney, Australia. It charts Petit’s obsession with the Towers after reading of their building as a teenager. The film draws a reader n to the main event as well as any ‘hesit’ or ‘caper’ film made by Hollywood ever has, and Petit is a fascinating personality, albeit a bit grating. The 94 minute film never makes mention of the events of 9/11 and, on the plus side, this means no restatement of the obvious clichés and bathos. On the negative side- and this is likely the lone negative of this otherwise great film, the film misses a golden showcase for us to get a real ‘in’ to Petit’s psyche, when he is not clearly mugging for the camera. After all, could anyone have had dearer feelings for those buildings than he?
Nonetheless, the film succeeds on almost all other levels, from some truly inventive cinematography by Michael Nyman, to exquisitely edited footage and photographs by Jinx Godfrey, to J. Raph’s and Michael Nyman’s wonderful musical scoring; the highlight of which is Erik Satie’s Gymnopaedies, especially #3, so skillfully employed in scenes of Petit’s actual walk, making this film the third member of a trilogy of great films deploying this signature piece; the others being Woody Allen’s Another Woman and Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre. The re-enactments and descriptions of the planning- from fake IDs to the wires to faking invoices to hiding for hours on the top floors of the two towers, then waiting to rig the equipment all up, is fascinating, and Marsh nicely intercuts elements of the training in with the re-enactments so that, by film’s end, viewers long familiar with the ‘coup’ will be seeing it with the awe of those people lucky enough to have viewed the actual walk all those decades ago.
I once wrote a poem called The Twin Towers Canon, which was written a few years before 9/11 and, like this film, only grew stronger with the towers’ passing, where I asked this query:
Has it ever given light
to a young boy's design?
Clearly, in the case of Philippe Petit, the answer is yes. So too must the answer be affirmative in regard to Mount Everest, the Fatal Attraction mistress of George Mallory. But, while hundreds have equaled or bettered Mallory’s achievement, no one has equaled Petit’s, yet it took this film to give him his due for a feat that I doubt even the bravest of Mountaineers would even think to attempt. Unfortunately, Mallory’s film also comes up second rate in regard to Petit’s, even though it is a good film. Petit’s just happens to be greater. Poor Mallory, even in death he loses again. C’est la mort!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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