Film Reviews


By • Jan 23rd, 2004 •

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IFC Films / A Darlow Smithson production for FilmFour
Running time — 106 minutes / No MPAA rating


The vista is awesome. The majestic panorama of the Andes. An icy terrain, irregularly sprinkled with piles of soft, sugary snow. That black speck in the distance—you realize it’s a man, desperately fighting to survive, despite dehydration, broken bones and frostbite. The outlook is bleak. Very.

But for Brits Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, scaling the heights is “what we live for.”Famous last words. Almost.

In nerve-racking detail to keep you on the edge throughout, this true-to-life docudrama reconstructs their successful attempt to be the first to scale the treacherous west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, though both almost lost their lives in the process.

Background: In 1985 when they were in their early twenties, the pair, both skilled mountaineers, attempted the perilous ‘Alpine-style’ climb—meaning no equipment except their backpacks, and no back-up team or helicopters. After 3 1/2 days, they reached the summit. No sweat. But on the descent less than a half hour later, Simpson fell, shattering his right leg, and Yates, true to the climbers’ creed, tried to help lower him down, 300’ at a time

During this slow, agonizing process with the pair attached by a rope, Simpson found himself dangling helplessly over the edge of a 100-foot icy crevasse. Caught in a blizzard up above, Yates not only couldn’t see his partner, he couldn’t move. He also knew he couldn’t hold on to him indefinitely— his muscles would eventually give out and they’d both plummet down. His only recourse: if he didn’t cut the lifeline separating them, he felt he’d be as good as dead.

So Yates did the unthinkable. He cut it.

It was a decision he’ll always have to live with because, as was explained, the biggest taboo any climber can commit is to sever the rope that binds you to your partner. And Simpson’s international bestselling book, on which this film is based, was in part his effort to vindicate Yates for his highly criticized actions. (He’s apparently still blackballed by other mountaineers.)

What follows is a lividly vivid reenactment of their separate descents to the base camp, portrayed so very realistically by actors Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron, you could swear they were the real thing. We’re given a bird’s-eye view of their journey—and in the sorely crippled Simpson’s case, an excruciatingly painful one lasting for days while he literally worked his way down, inch-by-inch, in sub-zero weather.

Scattered during the simulated adventure are the random musings of the real Simpson and Yates, whose relaxed accounts contrast sharply with the angst and anguish shown by their onscreen counterparts.

Filmed in the comfort of a studio, they don’t look like heroes—more like ordinary guys just chewing the fat on a lunch break. But heroes they are. And after all these years, even after their near-death experience, they’re still enthusiastic. As they say on-camera, “We climb because it’s fun…just brilliant fun…a combination of ballet and gymnastics; a mixture of power & grace.”

Through the magic of Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (for “One Day in September”-his feature documentary reconstructing the terrorist hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Games), and via the magical camera eye of Mike Eley’s breathtaking cinematography, you could swear you were there — so be prepared to fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be one helluva bumpy ride.

A personal aside: I’m a devout acrophobic, though my fear of heights and apprehension seemed to filter down to every last person at the screening. Hardly anyone moved or spoke during this reenactment of hell on earth. But above all, you’ll be left with the reassuring belief in the indomitable spirit of man.

Incidentally, the screening was held on one of the coldest days of the year, but leaving the theater, my feet solidly planted on the icy sidewalk, the weather didn’t seem to matter. Just one question remained unclear, unanswered by this extraordinary docudrama: when the temperature dips well below zero, how do the climbers go to the bathroom?

If the ‘heights of adventure’ are to your liking, from Cramer’s “Film Finder”-some highly recommended movies from cinema’s past that are worth the detour (all guaranteed to chill your bones and available on video): Alive (1993); K2 (1992); The Eiger Sanction (1975); Where Eagles Dare (1968); The Guns of Navarone (1961); The Mountain (1956); Scott of the Antarctic (1948).

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Producer: John Smithson
Based on the book by: Joe Simpson
Executive producers: Robin Gutch, Charles Furneaux, Paul Trijbits
Director of photography: Mike Eley
Editor: Justine Wright
Music: Alex Heffes

Joe Simpson: Brendan Mackey
Simon Yates: Nicholas Aaron

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