One of the legacies of my extended sojourn in chapel choirs, from the age of 7 to 22, is an abiding love for unusual corners of the Anglican choral repertoire. Long before I myself had to compose intricate 5-part counterpoint at various desks in damp libraries and assorted examination halls, I grew to love the polyphonic repertoire of Palestrina, Josquin and other masters of the Renaissance by actually singing it. As my interest in early music expanded I corralled various friends into putting on concerts of what were then practically unknown works: early French organum from Notre-Dame, Machaut and Ockeghem.
After a recent back operation I decided to reconnect with my love of singing in choirs by joining a couple of ensembles at UCLA. I have already written about the once-in-a-lifetime experience of singing Beethoven under the masterful baton of the legendary choral teacher Donald Neuen, in his farewell concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall. But UCLA offers many other conduits for those wanting to embark on unusual musical adventures. In particular, the UCLA Early Music Ensemble brings together an eclectic group of students and faculty from all disciplines, together with some interlopers from the community like myself, to perform anything from Baroque standards to way-off-the-beaten-path curiosities from across the world and across the centuries. Instrumentalists play authentic instruments of the period.
In one chamber concert we tackled a delightful potpourri of works by French and Flemish masters of the Renaissance, and for this particular work — “La Nuict Froide et Sombre” (The Cold and Somber Night) — I was asked to write the program notes. Here they are, and at the end you can watch our performance.
Orlando di Lasso, also known as Lassus, was something of a rock star in the hushed cloisters of 16th century polyphony. Legend has it that he was abducted no less than three times for the beauty of his youthful singing voice. Judging by the ubiquity of his works in print, he was also one of the first composers in history to understand the financial benefits of a good publishing deal. It enabled him to spend most of his life in stable employment at the Bavarian court in Munich where he enjoyed enormous creative freedom.
Lassus performing at the Bavarian court
You are about to hear why his music was so popular. He was able, within the strict compositional methods required at the time, to cultivate a more earthy and sensual manner that humanized the sacred. His gift for word setting was especially evident in his series of French chansons, which were amongst the most widely known and popular works in late 16th century Europe. The text for “La Nuict Froide et sombre” is by Joachim de Bellay, one of a group of poets who turned to Greek and Roman poetry as a way to revitalize the form.
Joachim de Bellay
This poem clearly channels Ovid to depict a scene of cosmic metamorphosis thus:
“The cold and somber night
Covering with dark shadow
The earth and the skies
As sweetly as honey
Dripping from the sky
Pours sleep into our eyes.
Then the glowing sky
To labour calling
Reveals its faint light
And in varied hues
This great universe
Unfurls and forms.”
This text may be secular, but its depiction of the unity of creation and the constantly renewing cycle of day and night would have resonated with devotional literature of the time. The diurnal cycle thus mirrors how despair and hope are constantly evolving into one another in the Evening and Morning meditations. That Lasso is aware of this resonance between nature and the spiritual life is reflected in both the pictorial detail and the underlying religiosity of his word setting. The descent of night at the opening is depicted in a series of slow-moving but harmonically unsettled chords. Contrasts between high and low registers accentuate the poet’s invocation of the earth and sky. A sequence of drooping suspensions perfectly mimics the effect of sleep upon the eyes. Throughout, a virtuosic use of chromaticism invokes not only the diaphanous quality of the scene being described, but also the profound sensuality of Nature’s effects. In that profundity the metamorphosis of day into night, and night into day, is rendered into a spiritual contemplation of palpable physicality.
“Einstein’s Monsters” is a collection of short stories and essays by the distinguished British author, Martin Amis (“Money”, “The Rachel Papers”). The book formed the basis for a radio drama project I developed in the early 90s for NPR, titled “Radio Einstein”. On this day, marking another year removed from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, this essay is a reflection on his book, and how the nuclear issue hovers, ever-present, in our individual and collective consciousness (or maybe that should be un-consciousness, given how comparatively blasé people have become on the subject). You can listen to the audio sampler from the radio series here, or click on the embedded link at the end of this post.
Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki
“I was born on August 25, 1949: four days later, the Russians successfully tested their first atom bomb, and deterrence was in place. So I had those four carefree days, which is more than my juniors ever had. I didn’t really make the most of them. I spent half the time under a bubble. Even as things stood, I was born in an acute state of shock. My mother says I looked like Orson Welles in a black rage. By the fourth day I had recovered, but the world had taken a turn for the worse. It was a nuclear world. To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel very well at all. I was terribly sleepy and feverish. I kept throwing up. I was given to fits of uncontrollable weeping….. When I was eleven or twelve the television started showing target maps of South East England: the outer bands of the home counties, the bull’s eye of London. I used to leave the room as quickly as I could. I didn’t know why nuclear weapons were in my life or who had put them there. I didn’t know what to do about them. I didn’t want to think about them. They made me feel sick.”
This is how the great British novelist Martin Amis begins his essay, “Thinkability”, which leads off his book, Einstein’s Monsters.
The short stories which follow are his attempt to find ways to write about nuclear weapons: what they embody, and what they do to us – physically, psychologically, sociologically, and all the other “-ally’s”. The stories are metaphors, allegories, psychodramas, fantasies embedded in a paradox. The paradox at the heart of the nuclear equation. Nuclear fusion and fission are derived from the primal energy of creation, yet they also give rise to such monumental destructive energy that they can end all creation. The life force is also the death force. As Amis acknowledges:
“Although we don’t know what to do about nuclear weapons, or how to live with nuclear weapons, we are slowly learning how to write about them. Questions of decorum present themselves with a force not found elsewhere. It is the highest subject and it is the lowest subject. It is disgraceful, and exalted. Everywhere you look there is great irony: tragic irony, even the irony of black comedy or farce; and there is irony that is simply violent, unprecedentedly violent. The mushroom cloud above Hiroshima was a beautiful spectacle, even though it owed its color to a kiloton of human blood.”
The “irony of black comedy or farce”, as Amis describes it, is what drives the most famous exploration of the nuclear nightmare in popular culture, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Originally, Kubrick had intended a more-or-less straight dramatization of the series of events in his film that lead to nuclear Armageddon. But, as he worked on the project, he came to realize that the darkness of his subject could only be adequately captured with the heightened irony and absurdist tone that characterize the finished movie. One of the film’s most famous lines perfectly captures the surrealistic absurdities that lie at the heart of any contemplation of nuclear issues, whether in fact or fiction. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) admonishes General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) as he wrestles with the Soviet Ambassador on the floor of the U.S. Operations Control Room: “Gentleman! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”
The film originally ended with a massive custard pie fight, a lovely allusion to the movies’ silent era, and an apt reductio ad absurdum of the nuclear stand-off.
Kubrick directing George C. Scott in the pie fight
But Kubrick felt this farcical conclusion was perhaps a little too much, diluting the point he was trying to make — and he was right.
It would have trivialized a scenario that, for all its absurdity, was deadly serious, because underneath all the antic posturing, the possibility of an accidental first strike by America’s nuclear bombers was entirely possible. So Kubrick opted for a more sobering, albeit still surreal, conclusion. The maniacal, crippled Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers), knowing that a Doomsday Device of planet-wide annihilation has been triggered by America’s single wayward bomber, is so transported by his visions of mass copulation amongst the survivors (with multiple female partners allocated to each man) that he rises, prophet-like, out of his wheelchair, declaring “Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!” Cut to epic, beautiful shots of nuclear orgasm derived from documentary footage of H-bomb tests, with Vera Lynn crooning on the soundtrack the old wartime standard: “We’ll meet again / Don’t know where, don’t know when / But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day…..”
Mankind (and let me emphasize the man part of that word – I suspect womankind, left in charge, would not pursue self-annihilation with such single-minded fervor) has always seemed to find something compulsively beautiful in the rictus of death. Why else would we have continued to celebrate obliteration so fervently in our literature and art? From the earliest myths which correlate love and passion with death (Tristan and Isolde anyone?) we have now moved, inexorably it seems, to the ubiquitous fetishizing of erupting death wounds, dismemberment, and other baroque, slow-motion tours de force to be found even in your average Summer PG-13 blockbuster. And this is not to mention the lingering shots of mutilation and the casual sadism we welcome into our homes without a blink on assorted TV procedurals and Game of Thrones. As a species we are as much in love with the look of violence and death as we are with the idea of it, let alone the practice of it.
Nowhere is this dichotomy between the beauty and horror of death presented more vividly, on a more epic scale, than in the biblical splendor of the atomic detonation, and the smoldering, shimmering afterglow of the rising mushroom cloud. Take a look at the carefully restored footage of America’s nuclear testing program of 30-plus years, gathered together in the documentary Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie, and you’ll want to pop your corn and settle in for an evening of nuclear ‘shrooms. Viewing real footage of assorted atom and hydrogen bombs is beautiful, compelling, exotic and terrifying in ways that the slow-motion carnage and mayhem of the Matrix movies can only dream of being. Because this stuff is real, man! During the height of America’s above-ground testing program, families would traipse out into the desert with their picnics to watch the spectacle: a nuclear al fresco, if you will. Little did they know they were also investing in a future of mutant tumors, rebellious immune systems, and sometimes a slow-motion, radiation-soaked death incurred from drifting fallout (see the extraordinary book and website American Ground Zero).
When the scientists of the Manhattan Project witnessed the first atomic test in the Nevada desert, named in suitably Biblical fashion as Trinity, the beatific horror of what they had created, God-like, out of the building-blocks of creation rendered them, first, mute, and second, inclined towards prose tinged with a strain of scriptural poesy.
Trinity: .016 secs after detonation
Trinity: 15 seconds after detonation
J. Robert Oppenheimer, chief architect of the Bomb, himself quoted Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”.
Oppenheimer, hunched over the Trinity bomb, engaged in final preparations for the test
But, beneath all the hand-wringing and subsequent calls to disarm from some of the nuclear scientists, you can still sense the little boys within the fathers of Armageddon jumping for joy: “We did it!” they cry. As the cloud from Trinity arose from the desert sands, one of the scientists pronounced, more ominously, “Now we’re all sons of bitches”
In the months and years that followed the test, and the two subsequent atomic conflagrations in Japan, some of the Manhattan Project scientists, like Oppenheimer, began to more fully realize the ramifications of what they had wrought. They tried to jump off the nuclear band wagon as it picked up speed, to move the government towards disarmament. Miscalculating his political influence, Oppenheimer lived to see his security clearance revoked after a series of humiliating hearings in which he was accused of passing secrets to the Soviets. He never recovered, neither from the betrayals, nor the sense of his own culpability in bringing mankind one large step closer to its own doom, and died a broken man. Others in the scientific community, like Edward Teller (who testified against his old friend and colleague at those hearings), invested themselves heart and soul in the Faustian nuclear bargain.
Teller, more than anyone, set the US on the road to creating and stockpiling ever increasing megatons of mass-destruction. Motivated by his early experiences as a refugee from Nazi oppression before the war, he was more inclined to view the Soviets as the new Reich. For Teller and his political allies, the threat of force had to be contained by the threat of greater force, and thus the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, was born. Besides, the boys were hardly going to throw their shiny new toys out of the sandpit. They wanted to play, and play they did. Thus was also born this country’s epic program of nuclear tests that effectively irradiated the entire US with fallout over the course of decades. There were some in the medical community who raised alarms about the long-term effects this exposure would have on the population; their warnings (and careers) were duly curtailed by officialdom.
Photos taken from “American Ground Zero” by Carole Gallagher:
Teller himself remains a compelling, maddeningly enigmatic figure at the centre of the nuclear narrative. He was brilliant, zealous, paranoid, neurotic, messianic in his zeal for nuclear superiority, and, thereafter, for the so-called Star Wars missile defense shield; after giving birth to his babies, he then proceeded, Zeus-like, to find the most outré manner in which to eat them. If ever someone in real life embodied the flaws of a tragic figure like Lear or Oedipusit was Teller: tragic for himself, and for us.
In his essay “Thinkability” from Einstein’s Monsters, Martin Amis cannily zeros in on the strain of infantilism at play on the stage of the nuclear arms race:
“Trinity, the first bomb (nicknamed the Gadget)was winched up into position on a contraption known as “the cradle”; during the countdown the Los Alamos radio station broadcast a lullaby, Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings”; scientists speculated whether the gadget was going to be a “girl” (i.e., a dud) or a “boy” (i.e., a device that might obliterate New Mexico). The Hiroshima bomb was called Little Boy.
Rare photo of Hiroshima bomb from the ground, taken 2-5 minutes after detonation
“It’s a boy!” pronounced Edward Teller, the “father” of the H-bomb, when “Mike” (“my baby”) was detonated over Bikini Atoll in 1952…. It is ironic, because they are the little boys; we are the little boys. And the irony has since redoubled. By threatening extinction, the ultimate antipersonnel device is in essence an anti-baby device. One is not referring here to the babies who will die but to the babies who will never be born, those that are queuing up in spectral relays until the end of time.”
Extending his observation of this strain of infantilism that suffuses nuclear history, Amis extrapolates a keen metaphor with which to conclude his essay. Remember this was written in 1987, before the fall of the Soviet Union; though in reality little has actually changed in terms of the political chess game (or should that be crap shoot?) which keeps us perpetually betting the house on a round of nuclear Sudden Death.
The world’s nuclear stockpile c.2011
“At the multiracial children’s tea party the guest have, perhaps, behaved slightly better since the Keepers were introduced. Little Ivan has stopped pulling Fetnab’s hair, though he is still kicking her leg under the table. Bobby has returned the slice of cake that rightfully belonged to tiny Conchita, though he has his eye on that sandwich and will probably make a lunge for it sooner of later. Out on the lawn the Keepers maintain a kind of order, but standards of behavior are pretty well as troglodytic as they ever were. At best the children seem strangely subdued or off-color. Although they are aware of the Keepers, they don’t want to look at them, they don’t want to catch their eye. They don’t want to think about them. For the Keepers are a thousand feet tall, and covered in gelignite and razor blades, toting flamethrowers and machine guns, cleavers and skewers, and fizzing with rabies, anthrax, plague.
“Curiously enough, they are not looking at the children at all. With bleeding hellhound eyes, mouthing foul threats and shaking their fists, they are looking at each other. They want to take on someone their own size…..
“If only they knew it – no, if only they believed it – the children could simply ask the Keepers to leave. But it doesn’t seem possible, does it? It seems – it seems unthinkable. A silence starts to fall across the lawn. The party has not been going for very long and must last until the end of time. Already the children are weepy and feverish. They all feel sick and want to go home.”
To me, this kind of passionate, imagistic, but precisely argued writing fully captures the folly of the nuclear situation, which is every bit as six-packed, witless and ghastly a barometer of the state of civilization as its namesake on the Jersey Shore. Einstein’s Monsters is more urgently and evocatively written than any number of memoirs, histories, philosophical and political discourses that have marked the silent nuclear countdown since August 1945.
Amis was inspired first and foremost by the luminous, passionate writing of Jonathan Schell, whose classic The Fate of the Earth foretold the irradiated, polluted, slow stir-fry state of the world we now find ourselves living with, and in, for the forseeable non-future we’ve created for ourselves.
The rest of Einstein’s Monsters proceeds from the gauntlet Amis throws down for himself in the opening of his essay, “Thinkability”:
“Every morning, six days a week, I leave the house and drive a mile to the flat where I work. For seven or eight hours I am alone. Each time I hear a sudden whining in the air, or hear one of the more atrocious impacts of city life, or play host to a certain kind of unwelcome thought, I can’t help wondering how it might be.
“Suppose I survive. Suppose my eyes aren’t pouring down my face, suppose I am untouched by the hurricane of secondary missiles that all mortar, metal, and glass has abruptly become: suppose all this. I shall be obliged (and it’s the last thing I’ll feel like doing) to retrace that long mile home, through the firestorm, the remains of the thousand-mile-an-hour winds, the warped atoms, the groveling dead. Then – God willing, if I still have the strength, and of course, it they are still alive – I must find my wife and children and I must kill them.
“What am I to do with thoughts like these? What is anyone to do with thoughts like these?”
His answer is a sequence of stories which all latch upon the varied strands of the nuclear state, the nuclear argument, and the potential nuclear end-game. They explore the issues through beautifully rendered metaphors and allegories that bleed out into re-imagined Earths and states of being. In The Immortal, a man who is slowly dying, along with everyone else, of radiation poisoning, escapes reality by remembering his life as an Immortal being who has witnessed the entirety of the planet’s history. Thus the pettiness of human folly (and achievement) is put into cosmic context.
In The Time Disease, a future colony of pseudo Angelenos have traded in our current obsession for maintaining perpetual youth by any means possible for maintaining a state of premature aging (due to radiation and pollution) under a sky that is boiling with the same kind of nuclear tumescence the Manhattan Project scientists saw in the Nevada desert at the Trinity test. And this is fine by them, because to catch Time, to come down with Time – to become young again, to have hope – means you would have to acknowledge the possibility of Life. Given the impossibility of life continuing in any form we would recognize or desire in this putative future, this post-nuclear world, that would also mean the death of hope. It’s a fitting paradox from which Amis carves a dystopian future far more chilling than any of Hollywood’s creations.
The death of time and the birth of something else: a watch from Hiroshima
In the early 90s I was planning a radio adaptation for NPR of Einstein’s Monsters, which was to blend the stories with interviews and archival recordings from the frontlines of the nuclear age. The author himself was very supportive of the project. Alas, we were in the early stages of pre-production when NPR decided to scrap all its drama programming, so the project was shelved. But not before we had recorded a demo to give a taste of the series to potential underwriters. This is what you can listen to here. It gives a pretty good idea of what the shows would have sounded like, and stands on its own, I think, as a meditation upon the nuclear problem.
I have always felt that Amis’s atmospheric language, full of rhetorical flourishes and brilliant wordplay, was, like Dickens, ideally suited to be spoken aloud. Therefore, translating his stories into the medium of radio seemed not only feasible, but also desirable. Radio is both an intimate, interior medium, and also the perfect realm in which to let the imagination roam. So it seemed perfect for these kinds of psychological, allegorical and fantastical imaginings that were rooted in humanity’s contradictory nature.
The nuclear issue is a subject whose implications for how we define our species, our place in creation, and our so-called progress through history, let alone our future, are so vast, so paradoxical, so antithetical, that they resist rational argument and easy conclusions with all the slow-burn lethality of fallout. But, just as radiation invisibly suffuses the environment, its tendrils reaching into the fabric of life, initiating its slow rot from within long before physical symptoms of poisoning become manifest, so the idea of nuclear destruction has likewise insinuated itself into our mental DNA. It lingers, it corrupts and, ultimately, it decays everything it touches. For those reasons, this is one of those subjects that demands an experiential argument as much as an intellectual argument to be fully grasped. Which is what Stanley Kubrick was trying to do in Dr. Strangelove, and what, in a smaller way, Radio Einstein likewise intended.
As Einstein himself observed: “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”
Einstein and Oppenheimer
However, as Amis observes, our hearts have already been changed by the specter of the mushroom cloud, but not, alas, in the ways that Einstein was hoping for: “We are all Einstein’s monsters, not fully human, not for now.”
The warning is clear, but will we pay heed?
The signs are not good.
To listen to Radio Einstein, click on this link, or stream via one of the two panels below:
What is the ultimate movie-going experience? The ultimate big screen blow-out?
2001: A Space Odyssey?
Lawrence of Arabia?
Think again. Think a silent film, released in 1927. A film that was almost lost to history, if it were not for the obsessive efforts of a young British film-maker and historian, Kevin Brownlow. Today, on Bastille Day, we celebrate that masterpiece of French and world cinema: Napoleon, vu par Abel Gance.
I’ve got long history with this film. I was present at the now-legendary first screenings of Brownlow’s restoration at London’s Empire Theater in Leicester Square. That experience led to a friendship with Kevin, his producer David Gill, and composer Carl Davis, and a series of articles about their ground-breaking restorations of silent movies.
Then, in March 2012, Kevin’s definitive version of the film arrived for the first time in America, complete with Carl Davis’s superlative score. I dragged friends, my daughter and her mother (an ancestor of hers, a mistress of Napoleon, appears as a character in the film) to the screenings. They could not believe their eyes or ears.
Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, 2012 (Photo: Pamela Gentile)
The following is the review I wrote of the occasion for the Financial Times, supplemented by extra pictures. For those of you who are interested, a screening is taking place in London this Fall. Do not hesitate to do whatever it takes to be there.
Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon
It has taken 85 years, but America is finally seeing one of the cinematic wonders of the world in all its glory, as the enterprising San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents screenings of Abel Gance’s five-and-a-half-hour 1927 silent epic Napoleon.
French director Gance originally intended to make six films covering Napoleon’s entire life, but blew his budget on Part One, which takes us from Napoleon’s boyhood to his campaign to liberate Italy. Its first audience didn’t even see all of that: when Napoleon premiered at the Paris Opera, the film had already been severely shortened by nervous producers.
The birth of the Marseillaise is vividly brought to life in the film, and is here rendered into a 1927 poster by Georges Scott
In the succeeding decades, the film was scattered across archives, private collections and flea markets around the world. By 1954, when 15-year-old Kevin Brownlow discovered a 9.5mm home-movie version of excerpts, Gance and his film barely made the footnotes in movie history.
Abel Gance and the young Kevin Brownlow
For Brownlow, a future editor and director himself, viewing the film was a moment of revelation. “The camera did things that I didn’t think it could do, and it represented the cinema as I thought it ought to be, but had never seen an example of,” he recalls. “It was beautifully, brilliantly staged. You couldn’t believe it had been shot in the ’20s.”
The aftermath of battle
Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny
Escaping from Corsica
Gance saw film as an immersive medium of poetry and passion. To achieve his aims, cameras were thrown on to galloping horses, mounted on cables and sleds, and swung from pendulums.
Mounting the camera on a horse to film Napoleon’s escape from Corsica
He used split screens, multi-layered dissolves and revolutionary editing techniques to challenge every convention of cinematic storytelling.
The ghosts of the Revolution
Young Napoleon in a precursor to his later battles: the pillow fight
In the finale, when the frame is no longer big enough to accommodate Gance’s vision, the film explodes on to three screens.
He even shot test footage in colour and 3D. Rarely has the avant garde been given such heady rein in a mainstream narrative.
Napoleon embracing Josephine — and the world
Brownlow’s efforts to reconstitute the film turned into a full-blown restoration with the support of the British Film Institute in London. In 1980, British TV company Thames Television funded a theatrical presentation, commissioning an orchestral score from composer Carl Davis.
Davis turned to the classical music of the period – “If the whole film is a biography, a portrait of Napoleon, it could also be a study in the music of Napoleon’s time – Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Gluck,” he said – as well as popular songs. The result was a score that perfectly matched the film’s tone and energy; such was the combined impact that those early screenings passed into film-buff legend.
Young Napoleon (Vladimir Rudenko)
It was always hoped that this version of Napoleon would be shown in the US, but the rights there were controlled by director Francis Coppola, who favoured his own, shorter version, with a score by his father Carmine. It enjoyed great success, but was a pale shadow of the British production.
The execution of Danton
Over the years, Brownlow uncovered more footage and better versions of the material he already had. In 2000, the BFI and Photoplay Productions unveiled a dye-bath toned and tinted print, incorporating all the new material.
Fast-forward to 2010. In a twist right out of the movies, Brownlow found himself in Los Angeles receiving an honorary Oscar for his work as a film historian. Next to him sat another honoree – Francis Coppola. Whatever transpired in that meeting, the result was that all parties came together to enable the current Oakland screenings.
Coppola and Brownlow on Oscar night
All concerned have done Napoleon more than proud, not least in their choice of venue: the Paramount Theatre’s art deco splendour is a worthy setting for the film’s epic scale.
As for the film itself, the many visual refinements of the current restoration bring an extra cohesion to its narrative flow. The exquisitely nuanced photography registers more clearly, along with the meticulous crafting of period detail, while the tinting, especially in inter-cut scenes of different coloration, adds another level of emotional density. One sinks more deeply into the film.
Death of Marat
But maybe the greatest gift of this Napoleon is the opportunity for American audiences at last to hear music that is fully the equal of the powerful images it accompanies. Carl Davis conducts the Oakland East Bay Symphony in a spirited account of his stamina-challenging score, which, like Brownlow’s restoration, has grown over the years.
With the unveiling of the film’s final triptych, the Paramount’s 85-foot proscenium span ensured that even those who had seen the effect before gasped in astonishment.
Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)
It may have taken 85 years to get the film restored and back on the screen, but what’s a few decades when it comes to cinematic immortality?
Josephine (Gina Manes), Saint-Juste (Gance), and Napoleon (Dieudonne)
You can read more about Kevin Brownlow’s unique career as a filmmaker and historian in my interview with renowned director, Sir Alan Parker, here.
The people of the Himalayas believe the gods live in the high mountains, and that summits are sacred places. Everest was once known as Chomolungma, meaning “Goddess Mother of Mountains”. After the Chinese invaded Tibet their authorities decreed that the mountain would again be known by that name, rather than Everest (named after the surveyor who had first mapped the region for the British). Before leaving the summit in 1953, Tenzing buried some sweets and biscuits as an offering to the Buddhist gods of the mountain.
In 1951, as my father and other members of the Reconnaissance expedition gazed upon the southern slopes of Mt. Everest, did they wonder what gods they might encounter here?
As they peered into the lower reaches of the vast Western Cwm and up towards the towering Lhotse face, it was clear that whatever god or gods protected the mountain were going to make them work hard for the privilege of entering its Elysian snow fields. Mountaineers entering these high realms have been known to get a strong case of religion.
Looking up the Western Cwm towards the Lhotse face, gateway to the summit.
Not so my father. He was inclined towards practical thinking and was already well into his medical training when he first figured out a potential southern route to the summit in the basement of the Royal Geographical Society in 1951. The son of middle class expatriates living in Malaya, he had attended the public school of Marlborough, and therefore shared something of the gentleman’s club background of the British climbing establishment. However, he admitted to none of the sense of entitlement and rejection of professionalism that had plagued British mountaineering in particular, and British athletics in general, for years. (This issue was tellingly investigated in the Oscar-winning film about the British runners at the 1924 Olympic games, Chariots of Fire). The Alpine Club, home to generations of British climbers, was the Club of Clubs when it came to extolling the virtues of gung-ho amateurism over targeted training and systematic preparation.
My father was also well acquainted with Everest history, and the long series of British failures on the mountain. Already well into his training for an eventual career as a surgeon, he thought scientifically and methodically, and was determined to make sure none of the avoidable mistakes of the past would be repeated to keep the British from claiming their prize. Little did he know how much of an uphill struggle this would prove to be.
He knew about Mallory and Irving who, in 1924, had disappeared from sight en route to the summit.
The last photo of Mallory and Irvine.
He knew about the inadequate clothing, faulty equipment, bad hygiene, and the British abhorrence of taking anything more than an amateur approach to the laws of physics and anatomy during the course of preparations for Himalayan mountaineering. Reading the accounts by some of these Everest veterans one could be forgiven for thinking that it was better to martyr oneself on the mountain rather than admit scientific thinking into the climbing equation. “Muscular Christianity” was an ideology of embracing God through athleticism that came to prominence in the Victorian era and had become pervasive in the climbing world. Over the years Muscular Christianity had demanded — and received — a large volume of human sacrifice from its acolytes: toes and fingers from the frost-bitten limbs of those who survived, everything else from those who did not. Later in his career, my father became the go-to expert on frost-bite because of his success with preventing amputation.
The Everest problem, for my father, was the problem of high altitude – in particular the last thousand feet, where the human body enters a realm it is not naturally equipped to survive.
High on the Lhotse face.
Here the air is so thin and cold, that, without supplementary oxygen, the human body starts to shut down, even though the owner keeps walking. Trouble was, no one had been able to lick the oxygen problem. Flawed thinking and faulty equipment meant more often than not that oxygen sets appeared to make things worse and were abandoned by frustrated climbers who often felt they intruded on the “pure” mountaineering experience anyway. Thus, as he approached the summit, the living climber turned into the walking dead. He just didn’t know it yet. The history of high altitude climbing is littered with tales of those returning victorious or otherwise from the upper reaches of the mountain only to die as they descend: literally stopped dead in their tracks.
One of scores of dead bodies to be seen on Everest today.
My father spent his whole career railing against those who resisted the so-called “cheat” of having safety oxygen available at all high camps. Several superb mountaineers he had climbed with died needlessly on other people’s expeditions, he felt, because they did not have back-up oxygen for emergencies. Alan Rouse, who had climbed with him on the first ascent of Mt. Kongur in China, died on K2, sitting in his tent, left behind by his companions, drowning in his own bodily fluids as he spoke to his pregnant girl-friend by radio.
Alan Rouse (l), Michael Ward (c), Chris Bonington (r). London, 1980.
My dad felt events like these turned mountaineering into a blood sport, and his disdain for its practitioners knew no bounds.
“The most inhospitable place on Earth”: the South Col.
For my father in 1951, the solution to the Everest problem lay not in faith – faith in the human spirit’s ability to endure beyond what was endurable simply through brute physical force and mystical will-power – but in a thoughtful, well-researched and practical application of scientific principles to the challenges of high altitude, cold, and the limitations of the human body to function in both. The question was: how to overcome these challenges, and who was the man to lead the way?
Looking down the Lhotse face
After he had figured out the route and approached the Himalayan Committee about putting together a Reconnaissance expedition, he made inquiries which led him to the name of Griffith Pugh. Thus it was that my father found himself walking into the gaunt edifice that was the Medical Research Council’s Division of Human Physiology in Hampstead.
In Harriet Tuckey’s probing new biography of Pugh, Everest – The First Ascent (whose revelations amount to a re-writing of accepted Everest history), she describes their fateful first meeting. It’s an iconic scene, straight out of a movie. After finding no receptionist at the front door, “Ward searched along wide, dark corridors, eventually finding Pugh’s laboratory on the second floor. Entering the laboratory past crowded shelves of scientific equipment, Ward was confronted with a large, white Victorian enamel bath in the middle of the room, full to the brim with water and floating ice-cubes. In the bath lay a semi-naked man whose body, chalk-white with cold, was covered in wires attached to various instruments. His blazing, red hair contrasted sharply with the ghostly white pallor of his face. The phantom figure was Dr. Griffith Pugh undertaking an experiment into hypothermia. Ward had arrived at the crisis point when rigid and paralysed by cold, the physiologist had to be rescued from the bath by his own technician. Ward stepped forward to help pull him out of the freezing water. So began a long, fruitful collaboration and friendship.”
Pugh, a brilliant physiologist, Olympic skier, and trainer of high-altitude commandos during the war, not only knew his science but also thought outside the box. Eventually he would reassess every aspect of equipment, diet, hygiene, and physical training in order to overcome the problems of “the last thousand feet of Everest”. In effect, the successful outcome of the ’53 expedition would have been impossible without this application of scientific thinking to an intractable series of problems. Pugh’s work revolutionized all sports that took place in the mountains, and paved the way for a whole new field of scientific inquiry, what my father would refer to as “a cornucopia of science”.
Hilary and Tenzing en route to the summit of Everest, wearing the open circuit oxygen sets that Griff Pugh had diligently refined.
But in order to achieve this Pugh would have to win over not only resistant climbers, but also the entrenched, anti-science culture of the Himalayan Committee that was running the show. It was a struggle every bit as epic as the quest to ascend the world’s highest mountain, and the true story of what actually happened, and the full measure of Pugh’s contribution, was suppressed for many years by those in a position to do so. It is only with the publication of Harriet Tuckey’s book that this riveting story – which in fact is far more interesting and inspiring than the hitherto accepted orthodoxy — has been made public for the first time.
In these fascinating extracts from a scientific film that Pugh assembled with the aid of Tom Stobart (the official Everest cameraman) and George Lowe (who shot the high altitude sequences), we can see some of the issues he was tackling.
After his experiences on the Cho Oyu expedition in 1952, a dry-run for Everest itself, Pugh insisted on an extended period of acclimatisation for the team. The benefits were enormous.
Another major factor contributing to the success in ’53 was an increase in food and fluid intake, per Pugh’s recommendations. He made sure to pack each climber’s rucksack with favorite delicacies for consumption at high altitude, where appetites were normally depressed.
My father found working on the science of high altitude with Pugh utterly absorbing, and it stimulated an interest he was to pursue for the rest of his life. Here he assists Pugh with a step-test in an experiment at Advanced Base Camp (21,000 ft.), just above the icefall.
My father’s interest in the effects of high altitude dovetailed perfectly with his career as a clinician and surgeon. When Pugh decided to put together the first dedicated expedition to research high altitude physiology, my father immediately came on board.
The Silver Hut expedition of 1960/61, in which a group of mountaineer-researchers lived at 19,000 feet for six months, performing a wide range of experiments upon themselves, jump-started a whole new field of research in spectacular fashion.
Riding a stationary bike inside the Silver Hut. My father would later continue these experiments high on the Makalu Col.
The constant round of experiments was alleviated by skiing —
Griff Pugh skiing with the Silver Hut mascot, Rakpa.
— and by the ascent of local unclimbed peaks.
Ward and Gill, barely visible dots just below the summit of Rakpa Peak (named after the Silver Hut mascot).
My dad led a successful first ascent of the spectacular “Matterhorn of the Himalayas”, Ama Dablam, narrowly avoiding disaster on the way down when a sherpa broke his leg and had to be carried down on the backs of others, and sometimes swung like a pendulum off the peak’s precipitous rock faces. It was the first ever winter ascent, alpine-style, of a Himalayan peak; it was another eighteen years before the mountain would be climbed again.
The second attempted ascent of the expedition, of Makalu (the world’s fifth highest peak at 27,825 ft.), did not have such a happy outcome. Bad weather plus a series of accidents and collapses owing to high altitude resulted in the entire party being stranded at different camps high on the mountain.
Pete Mulgrew who collapsed near the summit of Makalu. Note frostbite on his fingers and nose.
If it hadn’t been for the presence of safety oxygen and the determined good sense of the one relatively inexperienced mountaineer in the party, John West, who climbed back up the mountain to see where everyone was, many could have died, including my father. He described his own rescue, after being stranded alone at 24,000 ft. for two days, thus: “At about 11 o’clock that morning I had my first brush with consciousness again. This was John West’s bearded face gazing at me. I remembered his teeth very well. They looked remarkably clean.” (The whole enterprise is described vividly in Harriet Tuckey’s book and my father’s autobiography, In This Short Span).
Members of the Silver Hut team: (l. to r.) John West, Mike Gill, Griff Pugh, Michael Ward, Jim Milledge.
The work at the Silver Hut led ultimately to my father writing the first wide-ranging text book in the field of high altitude medicine and physiology, and subsequent editions were co-written with two other members of the team: Jim Milledge and John West. Jim gave a most moving, and entertaining, address at my father’s funeral.
However, up to his death, my father, like Griffith Pugh, continued to suffer the scorn and cold shoulder of the leader of the ’53 expedition, John Hunt, and his acolytes. There were many reasons for this. As Medical Officer my father had to order Hunt to go down the mountain when he felt his deteriorating condition and insistence on “leading from the front” during the perilous ascent of the Lhotse Face was endangering not only the expedition but also lives.
There was also a heated confrontation over Hunt’s tactics for the final assault, in particular his choices concerning the setting up of high camps for the summit attempts. My father felt Hunt was compromising the chances for success of the first assault party of Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans by establishing their final camp too far from the summit. His misgivings were proved correct when the climbers had to turn back within sight of the top. Problems with their closed-circuit oxygen equipment, untested at high altitude, had delayed their progress. Pugh had warned Hunt this was likely to happen with the closed-circuit sets, which were a newer, more complex technology than the open-circuit design which Hilary and Tenzing, the second summit party, were to use. The controversy over Hunt’s strategy remains unresolved.
Here is Pugh’s discussion of the closed-circuit oxygen sets used during the first assault on the summit:
Hunt was a military man, and a fine leader in many ways (though not as strong a climber as the rest of the team), but he was definitely of the “Muscular Christianity” school of mountaineering. Harriet Tuckey: “He told his wife that on Everest he had carried with him a feeling that the hand of God was guiding him towards his goal. This sense of being chosen by God coloured the way he framed the official history of the expedition.” Which meant that science was largely relegated to the appendices of the official expedition book written by Hunt, and when mentioned at all in the official film of the expedition, made to seem like part of his own inspired leadership. There was barely a word of attribution for Griffith Pugh, the true architect of the boots Hunt had walked in, the clothes Hunt had worn, the food Hunt had eaten, the tents Hunt had slept in, and the smoothly functioning oxygen sets that had saved Hunt’s life on the Lhotse face and lifted Hillary and Tenzing to the summit.
Tenzing Norgay and Ed Hillary after summiting Everest.
In the introduction to the new edition of my father’s book, Everest: A Thousand Years of Exploration, the distinguished French mountaineer Eric Vola does not mince words in his appraisal of Hunt and his animosity towards my father.
He recounts an extraordinary episode which took place in 1973, at the 20th Anniversary Celebration at the Royal Geographical Society when my father spoke about the contribution of science to the success of the expedition. Afterwards Hunt came up to him, furious, and started shouting: “No one wants to hear about that science!”
Faced with the ironic silence of my dad (ah, how well I remember the futility of arguing with those silences), who was by then a distinguished senior Consultant Surgeon, Hunt became apoplectic: “I hate scientists”, he fulminated. Then he turned to another member of the expedition and said: “Someone should shut Ward up”.
The Everest team in Snowdonia: my father stands to the left of the group; Hunt, in black sweater, is in the middle.
At home my father remained remarkably sanguine about all of this. His greatest frustrations derived from having various expeditions to remote corners of Asia cancelled at the last minute because of local political instabilities, and having to deal with the officious bureaucrats of the National Health Service and their equivalents in the unions. On one memorable occasion, when the umpteenth strike closed down his operating room, he called up a fleet of taxis to pick up his patients and drive them through the picket lines to another hospital so he could continue his scheduled operations without interruption.
He was a dedicated believer in socialized medicine to the end, eschewed private practice (not for him the cultivation of an unguent bedside manner), and during his very active tenure as Master of the Apothecaries (the City of London’s oldest Guild) he implemented a number of forward-thinking programs in international medical co-operation. Foremost amongst these involved bringing his own specialized knowledge and experience to bear on the problems of medical relief after natural disasters in Third World countries.
His retirement from clinical work also saw a focusing on his many scholarly areas of interest, with articles being published in leading medical and mountaineering journals on a regular basis. Even a horrendous car accident in no way dulled his mind, which seemed ever ready for adventure. After completing his seminal Everest history, he turned to consolidating his lifelong interest and research into the extraordinary accomplishments of the pundits, native surveyors who mapped vast tracts of Central Asia for the British in secret, using the most basic tools and formidable memory. He had in fact learned these techniques himself, applying them in part on the Everest Reconnaissance of 1951, and more thoroughly during his trips to Bhutan in 1964 and ’65. (He used to practice being a pundit during walks in London’s Richmond Park — apparently much to my bewilderment as a toddler). A book was to be forthcoming, but his death curtailed the project until it was taken on by Richard Sale. The resulting volume, Mapping the Himalayas: Michael Ward and the Pundit Legacy, opens yet another window into his lifetime’s journey of exploration and scientific inquiry.
A page from my father’s 1951 Everest Reconnaissance diary, depicting the approach to the Western Cwm.
Looking at reproductions of pages from his Everest and Bhutan diaries enables one to share some of the same excitement he must have felt as he navigated through the icefall or looked upon the remote Lunana region, Bhutan’s own Shangri-La. He somehow always managed to be amongst the first Westerners to see these wonders.
Trekking through Lunana
Given the history of his fractured relationship with the Hunt establishment in British mountaineering, it was all the more striking – and gratifying – that when my father died the fulsome obituaries went out of their way to give him the full credit denied him in his lifetime for the many areas of pioneering work he brought to the worlds of mountaineering, exploration and high altitude medicine. I was stunned to see The New York Times give him equal space with the legendary civil rights activist Rosa Parks. These were two indomitable characters who I think would have liked each other if they had met.
Escaping the heat in the Arun River, en route to Everest 1951.
His funeral was remarkable for its celebratory nature, and revelatory in a way that he would have been profoundly moved by. Several elderly gentlemen, who had traveled long distances to attend, were amongst the congregation in the packed church, and were unknown to both myself and my mother. It turned out that they had been medical students under my father’s tutelage. He had inspired in them equal parts terror of what would happen to them if they made a mistake or forgot some obscure fact, and complete devotion to the practice of good medicine. That he had so inculcated in them the spirit of excellence, intellectual honesty, and moral integrity was a legacy he would have been proud of above all others.
The approach to Mt. Kongur in China (climbed by my father’s expedition in 1981), seen across Lake Karakul.
To me, personally, he was a remote figure in many ways, the result of his own emotionally undernourished childhood. It was therefore a treat to see him bond so completely with my daughter, who, upon meeting him for the first time, declared that he was “Dodo”. He wore his new name like a badge of honor. My greatest regret is that I didn’t sit down with him, with a tape recorder, and just talk. Get all the stories. All the knowledge. All his insights into a time when true explorers roamed the earth and walked off the map and had adventures the rest of us can only dream of.
He was a daunting figure in his accomplishments and no-nonsense disposition. His competitive streak, combined with a disregard for the niceties, could make him seem brusque, somewhat remote. But, in truth, he was a man of deep feeling: a remarkable man from a remarkable generation of men who, like the great British film director David Lean, were always looking to the far horizon, then tried to figure out the most interesting way of getting there.
Everest 1951: Ward and head Sherpa Angtharkay looking across Tibet from the Menlung Pass.
Michael Ward climbing in North Wales.
This is the third and final part of my reminiscences about my father’s role in the First Ascent of Everest and the 1951 Reconnaissance Expedition. You can read Part 1 – “Watching Dad on Everest” here, and Part 2 – “My Dad, the Yeti, and Me” here.
In fact, by the time this photo was carried on the cover of every newspaper on the morning of June 2nd, the climbers were back at Base Camp, having actually reached the summit on May 29th. But the news was held back for the morning of the Queen’s Coronation.
This is what Tenzing would have seen as he looked back down the way he had come, through the Western Cwm…
… and what he would have seen looking east towards Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world…