Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Into The Silence - The Great War, Mallory and The Conquest of Everest - Wade Davis

Into The Silence, by Wade Davis, chronicles and examines the British expeditions to Mount Everest in the period 1921-1924, paying special attention to George Mallory, and to the experiences of various expedition participants in the First World War, and the degree to which these experiences affected how the endeavours in the mountains were approached.

What could have been another book about mountaineering is given a different, and absorbing, dimension. The portraits of the various members of the expeditions are fascinating, and I gained the impression of a Britain in a state of flux, modernity encroaching on traditional values and methods, and people confused and disorientated in the wake of the 1914-1918 conflict. The author does not flinch in his descriptions of the horrors of the trenches, and in his observations about the folly of the war.

Another strand which I discerned from the early chapters was the ambiguity in the outlook of many of these men, even those with a seemingly enlightened and liberal view of the world. It is a candid window on some prevailing attitudes, often expressed in diaries and letters. Paternalism, at the very least, was still very much alive, if this is any guide. The frank and honest nature of the portrayals is one of the things which I found so engrossing about the book. It is safe to say that the human race has progressed in many ways since the early 20th century.

Another part of the appeal of Into The Silence is the diversity of the characters, and the way that attempts were made (or not as the case may be) to mould these people into effective and harmonious teams. It is probably true to say that an environment as extreme and arduous as Mount Everest lays bare individuals' foibles, frailties and idiosyncrasies. Some flourish and rise to the occasion, whilst others are defeated and ground down by the ordeal. Davis manages to evoke these phenomena very capably.

I was gripped by the detailing of George Mallory's early life, before the outbreak of the First World War. I had not realized the extent to which he had associated with some of the leading artistic and intellectual figures of his day.

Clearly, wartime travails had affected people in subtly different ways. All had their own tale to tell, or not to tell. Part of the charm is in sensing how the personnel, and the wider public, interpreted their efforts in the Himalayas, and whether to them it represented redemption, escape, idealism or else something different.

There is always a danger that the constant referring back to, and parallels with, the Great War, could become trite after a while. However, Davis handles matters with some sensitivity and finesse, making the assertions and allusions seem plausible and credible. The meanings, where they exist, occasionally emerge as quite nuanced, sometimes even nebulous.

I did rather feel that the chapters dealing with the 1921 expedition, given over primarily to reconnaissance and surveying, were padded and excessively long. It could perhaps have been condensed. The casual observer might also consider that, by comparison, the legendary 1924 trip is documented with relative brevity. Then again, this is no ordinary book.

The quotes from letters and diaries lend a real intimacy and authenticity to the story. As so often, these snippets reveal some innermost sentiments, and occasionally some unpalatable truths. The personality clashes, behind-the-scenes intrigues and animosities, and the vagaries of the selection processes, are in their ways just as interesting as the tales of heroism and stoicism at altitude.

Above everything looms the enigmatic figure of Mallory. Some of his outpourings during the three trips do not square with his supposed inclinations and sympathies. "Mercurial" might be a good way to describe him. A complex individual, and one has to admire his single-mindedness and drive, tinged as they appear to have been with insecurity.

I think that the author builds the tension excellently, as the stakes rise during the 1922 and 1924 expeditions, and the moments of truth approach. The descriptions of the courage and resourcefulness of the climbers, and the sufferings which they endured, are very well executed. One almost felt like one was there in a tent with Mallory, Irvine or Norton, haunted by gale-force winds and plagued by exhaustion and pain.

A riveting read, then, and one marvels at what these people achieved, with such primitive equipment and communications.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

This Sporting Life (1963 film)

This Sporting Life is a 1963 British film, directed by Lindsay Anderson, and based on the novel by David Storey. It stars Richard Harris as Frank Machin, a coal miner turned rugby league player. The movie follows Machin's professional trials and tribulations, and his romantic entanglements.

This film has assumed an almost mythic reputation within these shores, but it is different from how I remember it from my previous viewings. There is less rugby league action than one might imagine. One thing which is certain is that the piece would not have worked nearly as well had it been made in colour. 

If I discerned a message from watching the film, it was one of self-expression and honesty.  It was released in 1963, at a time when Britain was emerging from an introspective and deferential period, and bright young things from all kinds of social backgrounds were coming to the fore and making themselves heard.

I know that from the distance of the 21st century, some of the working class based "kitchen sink" drama of the early 1960s can even seem like self-parody, and occasionally comes off as patronizing. However, I think that This Sporting Life is plausible and credible in the main, partly because of the acting performances, and also because it lacks excessive self-consciousness. 

The movie strikes a chord with me, in a nebulous way. I was probably never really "working class" myself, in the truest sense, although my surroundings and contemporaries were.  There is an authenticity and candour here which is quite revelatory. People struggling to contain their feelings, but sometimes "letting go". That was something which I seldom saw in my youth. The grittiness and rawness seem real to me.

The social commentary here is quite subtle and "organic", somewhere in there for the viewer to pick out and ponder upon, and the "kitchen sink" elements focus primarily on the relationship between Machin and his landlady, played by Rachel Roberts.  As the film progressed, I thought that the portrayal of the human condition was increasingly bleak. Not a "feel good" film, from that point of view. 

The characters are struggling to communicate with each other, to open up, partly because of traditional British reserve and reticence. Frank Machin seems more expressive than most, but lacks subtlety and finesse in his dealings with others. Everyone else seems to conform, and this leaves Machin looking and feeling like an outsider, often uncomfortable in this milieu. An "angry young man"?.  Perhaps...

In contrast to the dark, dimly lit scenes in the house, the rugby portions of the movie are (comparatively) bright, less subdued and insidious, perhaps symbolizing the game as a form of escape for Machin from his other demons, frustrations and concerns. The picture is done in a "flashback" format, and this is employed to good effect, imbuing the work with additional dynamism and pace, and encouraging the viewer to muse upon meanings. 

Some of the scenes, especially those accompanied by the mildly avant-garde and creepy music, remind me somewhat of European art cinema, "audio-visually" at least.

The Machin character remains impassive and stony-faced when confronted with sycophancy and shallow fawning by social climbers. His responses, expressions and attitudes are possibly more ambiguous than those of your typical "angry young man". This also applies I think to his interactions with his "superiors", such as the rugby league club's owners. Whilst complex, he lacks savvy or sensitivity.  The brooding but enigmatic countenance is brilliantly conveyed by Harris. It is good to see some "animal" emotion in there, rather than endless oblique philosophizing.

This Sporting Life embodies a collision of  traditional values and the modern, business-like approach to life, as befits a film made during a transitional period in social history. Also, philosophies of life which are not epoch-sensitive are to the fore. Those who had decided "if you can't beam 'em, join 'em" stood out to me. One or two scenes depict Machin as detached, gazing upon the superficiality and pretense around him.

This feeling of detachment and alienation I could relate to.  The world is not a perfect place, and one can be too proud, and refuse to meet people halfway, ultimately to one's detriment. 

Another facet of Machin's personality rang true with me as well. That of not knowing how to behave, and what to say, at a crucial time. Misjudging situations and other people's feelings.  There is a fine line between honesty and leaving things alone which are better left unsaid. Being too eager to impress. Being out of practice, as it were, and this rustiness leading to a crudeness and insensitivity, and much later regret.

I feel that this film also serves as a pretty good study of the human psyche and the male condition especially. People being unable to communicate effectively, being on different wavelengths. This is one of the unpleasant, and unpalatable, realities of adult existence. At the root of it all, maybe, lie insecurity and loneliness. 

A great sequence near the end may encapsulate much of the film's narrative. We see Machin on a hill, looking down on the town, which could be seen as a microcosm of the world.  We then cut to a grim, brutal rugby tussle. Summing up his, and our existence, perhaps?  Then again, the rugby-life parallels are perhaps a little too convenient and easy.

Rachel Roberts' performance I find to be a real "grower".  Early on, it can seem a little bland and hesitant, but one has to see how things develop to appreciate that this was intentional. A strong, seamless effort.

This movie has a naturalness and a believability which makes it compelling.  This is real life. People here are not pointedly or blatantly wallowing in their predicament, or chafing at any kind of social chains. It is surprisingly fresh and resonant. Some of the topics and concerns explored are universal.  If anything, the film goes on too long.  It is not exactly light or "escapist" viewing, but it is satisfying and engaging.