It’s a signature time for robots. In real life we’ve got Curiosity taking a years-long constitutional on the red planet, Rosetta dropping in on Comet67P, drones over the White House and Iraq, and a Korean Man Machine doing some nifty stuff at DARPA.
In the movies, in this year alone we’ve already been seduced and terrorized by the babe-bots of the brilliant Ex Machina —
— and now the granddaddy of all metal men, the Governator himself, is about to blast across the eons (again) in Terminator: Genisys.
It’s easy for a human to feel a little overwhelmed and, frankly, a little redundant, with all this talk of self-driving cars, AI, and the imminently self-aware iPhone (okay I made that last one up but, hey, we all know Apple is working on it).
So, in this age of Terminators and drones, whizz-bang exterminators and pseudo-human love machines, might I suggest it’s time to remember a gentler breed of “Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With.” A robot who doesn’t have all the answers, even though, as he constantly reminds us, he does have “a brain the size of a planet”.
I speak, of course, of Marvin.
Marvin the Paranoid Android.
Marvin, a prototype of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, equipped with the ground-breaking GPP factor, as in “Genuine People Personality”.
Marvin, who upon entering the room, is inclined to talk not of the weather or the traffic, or what passes for news on Alpha Centauri, but rather will announce with breathtaking candor:
“I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed”.
Yup, that’s a Genuine People Personality all right. And yes, I know what you mean Marvin. It’s just so nice to hear someone else say out loud what many of us are thinking. Much of the time.
Marvin was the creation of Douglas Adams, a former script editor and writer on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Doctor Who.
Marvin is everyone’s favourite side-kick in Adams’s magnum opus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
This was originally a radio show for the BBC, but it was so popular it evolved into a series of books, a TV show, and, finally, a movie. But it is in its original radio incarnation that Hitchhiker’s shines most brightly. For most fans, Marvin as personified by the lugubrious, jaded tones of Stephen Moore, is the bright star bringing just the right amount of cynical illumination to the Galaxy.
Stephen Moore and friend
That is the genius of Marvin and the assorted droids and computers in the Hitchhiker’s universe: his too-human side. In trying to make machines more empathetic and relatable by giving them Genuine People Personalities, their creators (us) have made them uber-human to the point of ridiculousness. Thus we have elevators having existential crises: terrified of heights and cowering in basements. Or Eddie, the shipboard computer, who either declares life to be fantastic, all the time — or who mothers you like that over-protective aunt who smelled of slightly rotten elderberries.
It’s a delicious take on the old fear that the technology we create will somehow inherit way too much emotion for its, or our, own good. (Hi there HAL).
Marvin, reduced for most of the time to menial labour (like parking cars), prefaces much of his complaining with “Brain the size of a planet…..”
Ah, I know how you feel, Marvin. No-one really understands the full extent of my unique skills either.
Like, for example, I know I could have been a pop star. I just needed that one big break…..
Yup, Marvin’s been there, done that.
Is there nothing in this world a paranoid android cannot achieve, if only he dreams big enough?
And long enough?
(from l. to r.) Douglas Adams, Geoffrey Perkins (producer), David Tate (Eddie etc.), Geoffrey McGivern (Ford Prefect), Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod), Simon Jones (Arthur Dent), Alan Ford (Roosta)
“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:
Living and working in Hollywood one is inclined, somewhat more than the general population, to suffer from a variety of movie states of mind. After all, wanting to escape reality is what brought us to California in the first place, and the Hollywood in our heads is substantially preferable to the reality. (Have you ever been to Hollywood and Highland, where they’ve turned the gates of Babylon from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance into a mall? And that’s the upscale bit of Hollywood!).
Old Hollywood Babylon —
— and New Hollywood Babylon
Hollywood is also intrinsically hyperbolic and, since making movies is actually a pretty arduous process, I’ve heard grown men who have Oscars in their cloakrooms liken it to war. Ridiculous? Maybe not so much. A little mental meandering can be a healthy counterbalance to too much Hollywood reality. (Or unreality).
In fact, going from that blissfully innocent initial movie idea (“How about a shark terrorizing a resort? We can build a mechanical Great White, no problem, and film it in the real ocean so we don’t have to fake it. Easy!”), to actually opening a film is kind of like finding oneself in the third act of The Shining. During the required three plus years it takes to get a film made one mostly feels like that film’s seven year-old endeavoring to elude the unwanted homicidal attentions of an axe-wielding paternal figure (a Freudian mash-up of the studio, investors, critics, paying public).
The only way to offset the seemingly inevitable drop of the blade is to take one’s life into one’s own hands and, like little Danny, run out into the petrifying night, and lure the enemy into a frozen maze from which neither of you may return in one piece.
Of course I exaggerate. No one would work in movies if it was really like that. (Yes they would! They want to meet movie stars!) It’s really no worse than being a lawyer or member of Congress. (Where are the axe murderers when you really need them?).
So, getting back to my point about Hollywood’s denizens entering into Hollywood states of mind, let’s consider some possible favorite choices.
The writer – for example – is susceptible to Sunset Boulevard. He’s found himself floating face down in a swimming-pool so many times he’s forgotten how he ever got there (or how to stop it happening again).
Of course, writers live mostly in their heads anyway, and in Hollywood that can be a nice place — all that sun, sand and, well….
What’s in the box, Barton?
Yes, any writer who’s gone through what is politely called Development Hell will feel a particular empathy with Barton Fink. The prospect of seeing John Goodman’s gun-toting psycho charging down a spontaneously combusting corridor screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” will almost seem like a relief compared to another round of studio notes.
The producer – a much-maligned creature in movie lore – might veer between two possible models of how to go about getting the show on the road. There’s The Bad and the Beautiful, in which a group of filmmakers reflect on how they were aided in their careers, and then terrorized, by the Machiavellian producer played by Kirk Douglas, who will charm, swarm, cajole and bully to get his way.
And then there’s The Producers, wherein the titular characters set out to make a deliberate flop out of an all-singing, all-dancing Nazi musical, and end up with a smash hit.
Just another day at the office
But which of these two films represents how one should go about being a producer? Which one is the cautionary tale, and which one the blueprint for success?
The eternal dilemma of how exactly to go about producing hit movies is played out, second-guessed and dissected in the trades after every opening weekend. However, for every producer who yearns to cut through all the crap, Get Shorty will hold a special place in his or her heart for its gangster-turned-producer hero played by John Travolta because, deep down, every producer wishes he could make the odd recalcitrant collaborator/executive/critic/second-guesser an offer he cannot refuse.
The studio executive on the wrong end of Travolta’s pistol will always have Robert Altman’s The Player to console him. Tim Robbins’s sleazy protagonist does, after all, get away with murdering a difficult writer – and ends up marrying his victim’s girlfriend. (Add this film to the writer’s list of grievances).
The director who’s knocked around a bit channels Richard Mulligan’s beleaguered auteur in Blake Edwards’ sublime satire of Hollywood, S.O.B. (short for “Standard Operational Bulls**t”).
Driven to the brink of insanity by a mega-flop, Mulligan decides to wrestle victory from the jaws of box office defeat, and Robert Vaughan’s cross-dressing studio boss —
— by reshooting for an R-rating. How does he do this? Well, he persuades his star (and ex) Julie Andrews that her wholesome family-friendly image needs retooling (literally). To accomplish this he revamps his central MGM-style musical number as a porno.
Its climax (ahem) is Mary Poppins going all spring break on us (“You like my boobies?”a squiffy Julie declaims in a state of deshabillé).
That Mulligan gets shot to death for his pains —
— and is buried at sea in a viking helmet by William Holden and his buddies (after a spot of fishing) —
— is merely a tribute to his auteur credentials.
Actors adore All about Eve, Joe Mankiewicz’s paean to theatre folk, and dissection of the naked ambition (and unsheafed knife) lurking in the sweet smile of one’s understudy.
Cinéaste actors go nuts for Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Carné’s Dickensian canvas of a theater troupe’s lives and loves.
Why are we so fascinated by actors and movie stars? Because life is a performance, and we’re all acting a part — as Shakespeare so pithily pointed out. Movie stars just do it bigger and better than we do. David O. Russell’s latest, American Hustle, hardwires into our pop cultural obsession with everything actorly. It finds the intersection between performance and the con in the pursuit of the American dream, and milks the results for all their worth. And as per usual Russell pushes his cast out onto an emotional high wire — the resulting thespian high jinks and precarious balancing acts are glorious to behold.
But for me the film that maybe most perfectly embodies the surrealistic double-think a screen actor must hold in his head is Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. This is the one where a daydreaming projectionist —
— wanders into the movie he is screening.
Surviving a series of jump cuts that launch him from one perilous, and hilarious, scene to another —
— he ends up solving the mystery and getting the girl, because he entered the movie. Now that’s what I call commitment to a role. What an endorsement of film’s curative powers. (For a later spin on this idea, see Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.)
But if you had to select just one film to embody all the obsessions of Hollywood in one convenient package, I suspect that would be —
But, I hear you say, that movie has nothing to do with the movies. Au contraire, I counter. It is, in effect, the ultimate metaphor for making pictures. Consider.
Jimmy Stewart falls in love with a fabrication, an illusion of a person, who in this case happens to be Kim Novak.
“Screen siren obsession” is, in my opinion, a completely certifiable medical condition; a symptom familiar to moviegoers everywhere since the dawn of moving pictures. (Erotic fixation upon fantasy figures lies at the heart of film’s mesmeric dance of seduction). Then, when Novak “dies”, Stewart sees another woman who reminds him of the earlier one, and proceeds to refashion her into a replica of his earlier love.
What he does not know is that both women are actually one and the same.
That he’s the victim of an intricate con-job to cover up a murder is largely co-incidental, and barely relevant to what the film is really about. That crafty Hitch – he made a movie about making movies, and the danger of trying to build real-world romances upon the flickering shadows of fantasy and obsession, projected or otherwise, with death as the trickster “I do”.
“So what!”I can hear many a movie guy say. So what if the gal’s a fake, the guy’s a basket-case, and no-one gets to say “I do”. We’re making movies! How great is that! I know people who would kill to do what we do.
Yup, in Hollywood, Vertigo is the one you come home to.
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…
One of the perks of having my dad for a dad was the strain of unusual and exotic experiences that ran through my life as a result of being related to a Himalayan explorer, one of the team that first climbed Mt. Everest in 1953. For example, aged 6, having tea with the Queen of Bhutan and her family in a Kensington apartment, while a bodyguard named Rinzi, wielding a substantial saber and sidearm, stood guard nearby. (He was forever memorialized when I gave my childhood spaniel the same name: they shared a disposition of attentive watchfulness and deep brown eyes. And how many other London kids could say their faithful hound was named after a royal Bhutanese bodyguard? Thanks, Dad.)
When friends came down to the country for the weekend, we’d haul out my dad’s tent and camping gear. “What’s that smell?” my chums would ask, noses pinched.
“Yak!” I would respond with glee. God knows what ingredients actually created this odor. This stuff had been perched for a winter at 19,000 feet near Everest. Or was it a leftover from those epic treks through Bhutan, going to places no Westerner had ever been, venturing into terrain more Shangri-la than Shangri-la? No matter. The smell, though pungent, evoked Adventure with a capital ‘A’.
But the story which I got by far the most mileage from, and still do, is of the time my father encountered serious evidence of that legendary hobo of the Himalayas: the yeti, or abominable snowman.
“Oh come on, you’re pulling my leg,” any companion whose ear I am bending with this tale will protest.
I whisk out my phone and google ‘yeti footprints’. “There are photographs to prove it,” I declare, almost offended by the lack of faith.
“Those photos? Those are your dad’s photos?”
I nod my head, “Yup, next to the footprint that’s his boot”.
Thanks again, Dad.
This is what happened.
Fall 1951, and the Everest Reconnaissance party had been making its way laboriously through the Khumbu icefall, tricky and dangerous work, trying to reach the Western Cwm. From there they could better see where a possible route to the summit may lie. My father writes in ‘Everest: One Thousand Years of Exploration’: “Towers of fragile ice fell without warning and crevasses continually opened and closed. The icefall had become an immense, unstable ruin, as though an earthquake had shaken the entire glacier.”
Various routes through the upper reaches of the icefall were attempted, then abandoned. Finally, a few days later, they broke through into the Western Cwm, only to be confronted by an immensely wide and deep crevasse which barred the entrance to the level valley of deep snow beyond.
“I started down one or two places where we thought it might just be possible to descend to the bottom of the snow-choked crevasses many feet below; but even if we could have reached these ‘bridges’, they might have collapsed, or we might have found that the near-vertical ice on the far side needed artificial climbing and the use of our small stock of suitable hardware….
“Eventually we gave up. I felt very frustrated by this decision, for here was a good piece of technical climbing which, as I was getting fitter, I would have liked to try…. But, as Bill Murray put it: ‘We had climbed up and we had climbed down the impossible! Gainsaying the pundits we had found a route up Everest. This route would go.’”
The main work done, the team split up into different groups to explore some of the surrounding country. My father, together with Eric Shipton and Sherpa Sen Tensing set off towards an unknown peak, “a glorious spire of pale pink granite, capped by snow.”
They named it ‘Menlungtse’, “after the stream that meandered through green meadows around its foot – a vast amphitheatre of pastureland glacier.
“For our crossing of the Menlung La, we were traveling together, unroped, at about 16-17,000 ft. It was at about midday that we came across some tracks on the snow of the glacier. Sen Tensing had no doubt in his mind as to what they were – yeti tracks. Questioned closely, he was quite adamant that he had seen similar tracks in Tibet and other parts of the Himalaya. Here there seemed to be two distinct sorts of track. One was well-defined in that individual prints had recognizable features such as toes; a second group was less well defined, with few if any individual features.
“The more interesting were the well-defined tracks, most of which were on a thin covering of snow over hard glacier snow-ice. Many, but not all, of the imprints were clear-cut, and there were a great many of them.”
They paused, chose one especially clear footprint, and took photos.
“These distinct tracks went down the glacier and we followed them for about half an hour before they turned off into a side moraine; we continued down the valley. The tracks went straight down the glacier, which was almost level but with some very narrow and shallow crevasses, perhaps about a foot or less wide. Where those crevasses had been crossed by a line of prints, it seemed as if a ‘claw’ had protruded beyond the imprint of each of the toes.
“About 48 hours later, Bourdillon and Murray followed the line of the yeti tracks further down the glacier, and both men noted in their diaries that, though deformed by wind and sun, the tracks took an excellent line down the glacier.”
Clearly whatever creature had made the tracks was every bit as good a navigator of high mountainous terrain as British climbers!
When released to the public, the photos, naturally, caused a sensation. They remain the one clear piece of photographic evidence for the yeti that is not easily explained away. Forever after, my father was plagued with accusations that he and Shipton had somehow “made up” the footprints as a practical joke, a possibility belied by the independent corroboration by the other two climbers.
Lacking any other definitive evidence for the yeti, my father’s own best theory for the cause of the footprints was a human: “Though neither Shipton nor I realized it at the time, the inhabitants of the Himalaya and Tibet can and do walk in the snow for long periods in bare feet without frostbite, and I was later to see this also in Bhutan and Tibet… “
He wrote papers on the subject for the Alpine Journal and Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, detailing a number of conditions that could result in enlarged toes and even deformities of the whole foot.
“The ‘claw marks’ observed in the Menlung prints could be explained by the presence of Onychogriffosis or ram’s horn nail…
The Silver Hut pilgrim: eating a pipette (left), and showing his bare feet.
In January 1961, during the Silver Hut expedition in the Everest region, a Nepalese pilgrim who normally lived at 6,000 ft. visited our research sites and lived for fourteen days at 15,300 ft. and above. Throughout this period he wore neither shoes nor gloves and walked in the snow and on rocks in bare feet with no evidence of frostbite. Moreover, he slept outside with no shelter, at measured temperatures of minus 13ºC, and managed to avoid hypothermia by controlled light shivering.”
The Silver Hut
What do I think? “There are more things in heaven and earth…” A few years ago an ABC News team was in the Everest region and came across yeti footprints. They were on the same glacier where my father and Eric Shipton had been in 1951.
Back on Everest, more drama was to follow. After a few days my father and his companions realized they had strayed into Chinese-occupied Tibet, a dangerous situation that could end up provoking an international diplomatic incident if they were discovered. It could imperil the whole Everest adventure. They decided to make a run for it at night, along the banks of the river that raged through the Rongshar gorge. This was the stuff of the adventure stories and movies my dad lapped up as a kid, but it was all somewhat more alarming when you found yourself actually in one for real.
The Rongshar gorge
“The thunder of the torrent beside the path reverberated against the canyon walls, drowning the noise of our footsteps as we passed quickly through Topte village, hoping that the Tibetan mastiffs, let off their chains at night, would not hear or smell us. In the dark we stumbled over roots and rocks – in places a tree ladder had to be climbed, and in one fearsome place the path was only a few branches wide, balanced on a cliff face thirty feet above the boiling river and held onto cracks in the rock by small twigs.
“At about 4am our ‘smuggling’ sherpas reckoned we were past the frontier and we stopped and slept at the side of the path. An hour later the sun came up and we were surprised by a group of six wild-looking Tibetans with long pigtails, armed with swords and muzzle-loaders with antelope-horn rests, who erupted into the scene with much shouting. We could not escape since a vertical rock cliff of over 2,000 ft. towered behind us, and the boiling Rongshar river was only a few feet away. Immediately a noisy and furious argument started, with much gesticulating and shouting. Angtharkay (the head sherpa), all of five feet tall, seemed incandescent with fury. As the whole argument was conducted in Tibetan, we had no idea what it was about.
Angtharkay (c.) with Shipton (r.)
“After ten minutes of this Angtharkay came over to us and suggested that we four Europeans should retire a suitable distance away while he and the other Sherpas sort things out. After a further twenty minutes he returned with a broad grin. ‘Everything is settled,’ he said, ‘but I am afraid it will cost you seven rupees to buy them off.’ Ten rupees had been demanded, but Angtharkay had considered this exorbitant. The shouting had been the negotiations.”
All returned safely to England, and a new route to climb Everest had been found.
My father was never one to spontaneously break into tales of his exploits, but when I could coax him to speak about his various adventures (and Everest 1951 and ‘53 were only the first of many), his eyes would light up as, in his mind’s eye, he would step back into his climbing boots and walk into these stunning landscapes, unmapped regions of the earth that he was amongst the first westerners to explore.
I recall, aged around 9 or 10, venturing with him into the Harrods bookstore and discovering for the first time the Tintin series of original graphic novels. I scanned the brightly illustrated covers which promised exciting adventures underseas, in the jungle, on a crashed asteroid, and even in space. Where to begin?
My father spoke: “Well, you’re going to have to pick one of them.”
Then my eye fell upon the only possible choice:
The cover scene was eerily similar to the one my father had lived through in real life.
I beamed as I handed the book to the cashier.
“My dad met a yeti once,” I proudly announced as she rang me up.
The cashier smiled indulgently at me and then my dad: “Oh really, how interesting.”
My father, with the smallest hint of a grin, handed over his money and said not a word.
Footnote: First serialized in 1958, Tintin in Tibet was Herge’s personal favorite among his many tales of the young reporter, and was no doubt influenced by my father’s well-publicized yeti photos, as well as by the author’s own fascination with the mysticism of Tibetan Buddhism. He wrote it as a personal journey of redemption during a period of crisis, when he was assailed by recurring nightmares of “the beauty and cruelty of white”. His Jungian psychoanalyst told him he needed to destroy “the white demon of purity” in his mind. One imagines that some climbers who have come near to death as they pursue their passion for ascending into the highest realms of the earth are well acquainted with “the beauty and cruelty of white.”
This is Part 2 of my reminiscences about my father’s role in the First Ascent of Everest and 1951 Everest Reconnaissance. You can read Part 1 – “Watching Dad on Everest” here, and Part 3 – “My Dad on Everest and Beyond”, here.
The successful 1953 expedition — my father, tanned and dark haired with beard, is in the middle of the front standing row.
It was on this day, the 29th May, sixty years ago, that two men – Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal – stepped onto the highest point on Planet Earth, five vertical miles above the palm trees and distant twinkling ocean waters I can currently see from my window. And on that day my dad, along with the other members of the 1953 British Expedition that was endeavoring to claim those virgin snows for a fading empire, busied himself on the lower reaches of the mountain, anxiously awaiting news from the wind-swept slopes above .
When the news finally broke in England of the British expedition’s successful ascent (and it was an ascent in every sense of the word: physically, logistically, aspirationally, scientifically and – perhaps most importantly to a country still struggling with the lingering privations of the War – spiritually), it was the morning of the young Queen’s Coronation. The ultimate production number now had the ultimate curtain-raiser. Can you imagine what was going through her head as she labored out of her royal jammies (hand-tailored by Royal Appointment) into her coronation robes? “Top that, Victoria!”
Back on Everest, as the successful climbers returned to the lower camps, they were greeted with tea (for Tenzing, on the left), warm lemonade (for Hillary, on the right), and, I fervently want to believe, a plate of chocolate digestive biscuits (it’s a British thing). They’d certainly earned it.
And as you look at the film of the returning conquerors of the high, thin air, there you can see my father, smiling along with everybody else, all stoically clapping each other on the back with typical British restraint. It’s one of those occasions when I marvel at my countrymen’s inclination towards emotional restraint in circumstances that would send Americans (and most nationalities, let’s be honest) into fevered paroxysms of celebration. In fact, as my father wrote: “No member of the party was particularly elated…. Our first feelings in success were those of relief.” Relief that no one had died in the attempt, and, perhaps, relief that no other country had nabbed the prize from under the noses of the British, who had always felt the mountain was theirs to claim (the Swiss had come within 800 ft. of the summit the year before).
In the evocative documentary of the 1953 Ascent, The Conquest of Everest (which is also mildly – but understandably – jingoistic, and occasionally inaccurate), you can see dad laboring through the trickiest part of the climb — the icefall — fixing ropes and cutting foot-holds for the legions of sherpas and climbers who will follow, carrying supplies destined for the upper reaches of the mountain.
The icefall is aptly named. It’s as if a god of earlier mythology — a titan, perhaps, in the mood for mischief — had taken a series of high waterfalls and raging rapids, frozen and enlarged them, then put them on a slow-moving rubber conveyor-belt which will stop, stretch, then restart with a massive ping!, sending avalanches of snow and ice hurtling down through the canyons of vertical white and deep-frozen blue. Hidden crevasses with hungry mouths and bottomless maws lurk beneath the sparkling surface, ready to swallow unwary interlopers. The bottom of the icefall occasionally yields up the dismembered corpses of its hapless victims.
The narrator sets the scene in those deliciously clipped BBC tones of the period, savoring every last ‘r’ of the script’s alliteration: “The ice is always on the move — crrrrracking, rrrrroarrrring, rrrrrumbling… Ward is fixing guide ropes…. This place has a name — the climbers called it ‘The Nutcracker’: no one knew if it was opening — or closing.” Cut to an avalanche sweeping down the mountain. When I first watched this footage aged around 8, I thought: “My god, that’s my dad!!! ” and, even though he was sitting next to me: “He’s going to die!!”
Yup, these were our home movies and family snapshots.
Dad (r.) “relaxing” in the icefall
But I am getting ahead of myself. This story actually begins a few years earlier, in 1951, after the Chinese had invaded Tibet, cutting it off from the outside world. It was through Tibet, which bordered Everest to the north, that every assault on the mountain had hitherto been made. Nepal, to the South, was unknown territory: barely mapped or explored by Westerners.
My dad, then 25, was already a highly skilled and respected climber. When it came to hanging on in life, he did it literally – and often – usually leading the routes he was climbing.
Well-versed in the history of Everest exploration he played a hunch and descended into the spectacularly disorganized archives in the basement of the Royal Geographical Society. He rummaged around in drawers full of loose, un-filed materials, examining thousands of photos from earlier expeditions for clues as to what lay on the mountain’s southern side, until – in a true Indiana Jones moment – he found what he had only suspected might be there. Out of an unmarked brown envelope tumbled secret photos of Everest taken by spy planes during the war, and (music swells, camera zooms in) a forgotten map, compiled from photos and a photogrammetric survey carried out in 1935. A sketchy map, with plenty of empty space on it, but a map nevertheless.
The Milne-Hinks Map
First Flight over Everest, 1933
It all added up to clear evidence of a possible route up Everest from the south, through Nepal.
He took his findings to the newly-formed Himalayan Committee, which was responsible for administering all expeditions to the region. In bravura bureaucratic fashion, it immediately distinguished itself by pouring cold water on the whole idea. Undeterred, he began organizing an expedition anyway. He brought in Bill Murray, a pioneer of Scottish winter climbing, and therefore familiar with some of the more extreme weather conditions they could expect to find on Everest.
Michael Ward (left) and W.H. Murray at Namche Bazar, Everest Reconnaissance 1951.
Also onboard was Tom Bourdillon, a rocket scientist, and one of the best British climbers of his generation. With the addition of Eric Shipton, an iconoclastic veteran of Everest, as expedition leader, the Himalayan Committee finally acceded, and The Times newspaper provided the necessary financial backing.
Further members of the team assembled as the expedition trekked in through the foothills of the Himalayas. The sherpas were led by the legendary Angtharkay, described by Shipton as “absolutely steady in any crisis — outstandingly the best of all the sherpas I have known.” Then, one day on the trail, as described by my father in Everest: One Thousand Years of Exploration: “two New Zealanders, Earle Riddiford and Edmund Hillary, came surging up the hill brandishing enormous Victorian-style ice-axes. Expecting to see a group of well-dressed Englishmen, they were surprised and perhaps a little disconcerted to find that, if anything, we were scruffier than they were.”
1951 Everest Reconnaissance Team: (clockwise from left) E. Shipton, W.H. Murray, T.D. Bourdillon, H.E. Riddiford, E.P. Hillary, M.P. Ward.
Moving along broken trails, crossing raging rivers on rickety bridges, suffering through the tail-end of monsoon season and all its attendant miseries of rain, mud and leeches, the team made the first walk-in to what would later become the world’s busiest (and filthiest) camp site: Everest base camp.
In his autobiography my father wrote: “I was continuously amazed by the stark beauty of the mountains and by the steepness and incisiveness of their faces and ridges. The sherpas always rejoiced in the beauty of their country and though I thought this might be a case of special pleading, the three days’ walk up to the foot of the Khumbu glacier represents one of the most memorable experiences that I have ever had.”
They passed by the monastery of Thyangboche, at 12,000 feet standing as gaunt (if not as precipitously) as the monastery in Powell and Pressburger’s hallucinatory Himalayan fantasy, Black Narcissus.
Movie mountains and monastery…
Looming over Thyangboche monastery is one of the most spectacular mountains in the world, Ama Dablam: ‘Ama’ meaning mother, and ‘Dablam’ meaning the locket in which Sherpa women keep their valuables.
“A gigantic tooth, rearing into the sky”, wrote my father, “it dominated the monastery and the whole area, its upper wedged-shaped ice slopes serrated by the wind and glistening in the sun. The lower part spread out massively into knife-edged black rock-ridges. This was without question the most staggering of all the peaks that I had ever seen”
… the Real Thing.
My dad would return to the mountain during the pioneering Silver Hut expedition of 1960/61, when a team of climber scientists would live a whole winter at an altitude of over 19,000 feet, performing high altitude research. He would lead a successful first ascent of Ama Dablam, but not without incredible drama along the way. Near the summit, a sherpa fell, breaking his leg. Being so high on such a tricky technical route, all ice and precipices, this could have been a death sentence. Instead my dad got him down safely by trussing him up like a chicken, then carrying him down vertical rock and ice faces in relays with other team members — one climber with the sherpa on his back would descend, unable to look at his feet, while his companion would physically move his feet from one toe-hold to another.
But now, here, in the shadow of Ama Dablam, poised on the edge of this pioneering adventure in their own Shangri-la, these last true explorers of the British Empire paused and looked towards the distant bulk of Everest, a conglomeration of peaks whose huge mass dwarfs everything around it.
The Everest group, upper left, (with snow plume coming off the distant summit), with Ama Dablam (right), looming over Tyangboche monastery barely visible on the ridge in middle of photo.
Above the sheer wall of Lhotse peaks the distant summit – swept almost black by the wind — barely visible as it claws at the dark blue of space like some vast volcanic spur of alien rock.
“Walking, as I had that day, straight towards the Everest group of peaks”, my father wrote, “I had been overwhelmed by the sheer audacity and steepness of the more immediate mountains that seemed to hang over my head. In the distance I could just see the top of Everest peeping over the nearer wall formed by Everest and Lhotse, which never seemed to get closer. The crest of the Everest-Lhotse wall, 25-26,000 feet, towered at least two vertical miles above my head. At its base were rock pinnacles and snow humps of 21,000 feet which on their own might have been considered peaks, yet in this setting appeared insignificant.”
Everest from Kalar Patar
They arrived at the foot of the Khumbu glacier, “a horrible maze of ice lumps, and covered in unstable stones. To carry loads up this way was to have a glimpse into purgatory.”
They were at the gateway to the Western Cwm, a massive snow valley which swept upwards towards the steep Lhotse face that led up to the South Col, the inhospitable staging-post from which the summit attack could be launched. Two years later, it was the struggle to ascend this 4000 ft. wall to the South Col that would almost be the undoing of the British attempt on the summit.
But now, between them and the Cwm, lay the daunting obstacle of the icefall.
It was decided they were not all fit enough to tackle this yet, so they split up to scan this massive complex of constantly shifting ice towers and crevasses from neighbouring peaks and slopes.
During the following days my father embarked on the type of exploratory mountaineering — walking and climbing off the map, if you will — that was to become his passion for the rest of his life.
Eric Shipton and Reconnaissance Party, 1951
“This was my first taste of mountain exploration and I was fascinated by the mystery of penetration into unknown country. The disciplines and margins of mountain travel are as absolute as those of any scientific subject…. The uppermost feeling was an intense curiosity to see what the next bit of country looked like.”
“The urge to go on and on, continually finding out what is round the corner or over a pass, together with the pleasure of seeing it all fit in place, like a giant’s jigsaw, became to me one of the most fascinating aspects of mountaineering, and this was my first experience of it.”
The team reconvened at the base of the icefall, fully aware of the considerable danger that awaited them from hidden crevasses and flash avalanches that swept through its icy terrain.
But they were determined to break through to the Western Cwm, to look up through its snow fields towards their eventual goal.
(l.-r.) Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, with Icefall, 1951
In the movie of this moment, these men look down the valley which leads back to Thyangboche, last outpost of civilization. They turn and look at each other, channeling craggy Sam Shepard in “The Right Stuff” as he eyes his experimental jet-plane with a view to breaking the sound barrier. In silence the decision is made. They hoist their rucksacks, grab their ice axes, and turn into the wind.
Moving off, they disappear into their map’s white empty spaces, and the cold embrace of the icefall.
This is Part 1 of a three-part series of reminiscences about my father’s role in the historic expeditions to climb Mt. Everest. You can read Part 2 – “My Dad, the Yeti, and Me” here, and Part 3 – “My Dad on Everest and Beyond”, here.
Paul Simon wasn’t there (but he should have been) to gently coo the adjusted lyric to his classic song “Still Crazy After All These Years”, as Cybill Shepherd — the femme fatale in question — took her bow on the stage of the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. The occasion was a sold-out screening of The Last Picture Show, celebrating the 40th anniversary of a modern American classic.
No, not director Peter Bogdanovich’s movie — or at least that’s not how it was starting to seem at the Academy that night. No, we were here to revisit another Hollywood classic: the director’s notorious on-set extra-marital affair with his leading lady, carried on under the nose, literally, of his wife and creative collaborator, Polly Platt, who was also the film’s production designer. Hollywood, like the elephant it is, and all protestations to the contrary, never entirely forgets sins a little too close to hearth and home.
Polly Platt with her husband Peter Bogdanovich and daughter.
The affair ended her and Peter’s marriage, and was the scandal of the day. And now, forty years on, it was almost as if no time had gone by, no water had flowed under the bridge, as cast members pointedly teased and taunted Bogdanovich and Shepherd about their off-screen shenanigans all those years ago. Clearly “The Last Picture Show starring Pete and Cybill” still got the thumbs-down.
Who needs marriage anyway?
The evening had started out as a more conventional anniversary celebration of one of the best American movies the 70s have to offer, with a gorgeous, newly struck print and the presence of cast and crew luminaries, but by the end of the Q&A the only thing anyone (cast and director included) was talking about was how Miss. Shepherd was still getting it done. By getting it done, I mean getting her co-stars all riled up about those far off days of high jinks, and still looking so hot that her director seemed about ready to melt into his younger self (and Cybill) right there and then on the stage of the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. And could we blame him? I mean, Cybill — damn!
Of course we’d all caught the fever from the movie we’d just watched, which portrays the sexual fumblings and tumblings of a 1950s small town citizenry as the last gasp of lives and of a town – of a picture show – that were all essentially over long ago. It’s just that the inhabitants don’t yet fully grasp the fact of their own obsolescence, and keep going through the motions anyway. This is a place where watching movies and getting laid are the only escape from the inexorable, slow-motion death of hope. Maybe we’re not so far from Beverly Hills after all…..
The only picture show in town.
Film companies out on location are like two years of high school crammed into a couple of months. The intensity of the work, the long hours, the isolation and distance away from hearth and home combine with flammable egos and jacked-up emotions to create a unique petri-dish of carnal possibilities. It was probably inevitable that the film’s makers would be drawn into the vortex of lust games they were laboring to capture onscreen. To judge from its effect at the Academy on that night four decades after the shooting, the film hadn’t lost any of its power to combust and discombobulate. By the time the lights came up, the air was heavy with a potent mix of melancholia and yearning for lost innocence, combined with that musty, close aroma you get in a basement where a bunch of teenagers have been heavy petting all night.
How uniquely Hollywood, I thought, as the director and cast members variously ambled, staggered, and stumbled onto the stage. Here they are, our stars of the movies, destined always to be confronted by these giant images of their own eternal youth and erotic angst, alive but also embalmed up there on the silver screen. Yet each day, every day, looking into the mirror — that other silver screen — they must bear witness to their present, mortal, in some cases almost unrecognizable, selves, the fragments and remains of those same immortal images up on the bog screen. Alive, “live”, in the flesh, but now being photographed and filmed again for the Academy archives, they have lived long enough to become archives for the archives.
At the Academy (clockwise top l. to r.: Bogdanovich, Shepherd, moderator Luke Wilson, Eileen Brennan, Timothy Bottoms, Cloris Leachman)
You go to one of these Academy get-togethers and it’s like finding yourself sitting next to both Dorian Grey and his portrait at the High School reunion dance. What a dilemma. Which one is real? Who do you take out onto the floor for a spin? The young beautiful one with skin like warm silk, who promises to reconnect you with your idealized younger self; or the one sitting in film-noir shadows, his deep eye-wells of experience daring you to dance with him into the dark, and beyond? It’s the kind of situation or dilemma that is compelling, fascinating, a little unsettling, and absolutely one of the reasons why I love living in L.A., because this kind of weirdness is going on all the time. It’s what powers this town: the primal energy derived from protons of illusion gun-barrelling towards nuclei of reality.
The other thing that is clearly going on all the time is Cybill Shepherd, who sweeps down through the audience and onto the stage like she has a story to tell. And boy does she tell it!
“Pussycat! Pussycat….!” Lolita eat your heart out.
Notions of the passing of the years softening her libido, or of her youthful indiscretions being a thing of the past be damned. Cybill looks about ready to pick up right where she left off on that diving-board 40 years ago, awkwardly stripping down to her panties in front of a room of drooling teenagers, then casually flinging her last shred of modesty to the waiting pack of celebrity watchers before plunging into stardom and beyond: the black hole of fickle fandom. And the Academy audience, already plugged-in and jacked-up on its two-hour, black-and-white make-out session, is primed and ready to wave her into home base.
So Cybill marches up onto the stage and sits right next to Peter Bogdanovich — naturally. She gives him that “You know I’m still a gorgeous movie-star, don’t you?” look, straight in the eye: “Go on. I dare you”.
Bogdanovich directing his star – and lover – on set for The Last Picture Show
You can feel the tension ripple through the cast — naturally, for this was the woman who destroyed the life of their friend and colleague, remember, with sex. Young sex. Young blonde sex. The room goes quiet. We’re all teenagers back in that swimming-pool, waiting for the blonde in her skivvies to prove she’s the real deal. Is she really going to do it? Is she really going to take it all off?