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The Commitments

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“The climbing world has been very ill served by Hollywood,” says Joe Simpson, climber, author, and subject of IFC Films’ new docudrama, Touching the Void.

True Stories

Joe Simpson speaks in Denver
Joe Simpson or Tom Cruise?

Simpson and Simon Yates were traveling in Peru in 1985. They wanted to climb the west face of Siula Grande, which had never been climbed before. Both are interviewed in the movie, so we know they both survived. But they speak ominously about being underprepared and overconfident, and about the tools and traits needed to survive while climbing.

If you’ve read Simpson’s book (also called “Touching the Void”), you already know what an amazing ordeal they went through. If not, you’re in for a nail-biting treat. I won’t repeat their story here because the movie tells it so much better.

The movie tells it so well, in fact, that it’s getting worldwide acclaim and box office success. “What’s happened in Britain is amazing. It’s now the second-most successful documentary film ever, it’s just behind [Bowling for] Columbine and we’re catching up. And it got nominated for a BAFTA [British Academy Award] last week, and not as a documentary; it got nominated as the outstanding film of the year alongside Cold Mountain and Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

The Hollywood Version

But this non-Hollywood, independent docudrama version of Touching the Void almost didn’t come into being. As Simpson explains, Hollywood owned the rights for a while.

“Prior to this being made I had offers from all sorts of people wanting to make the movie, and I sold the rights quite a few times, most famously to Tom Cruise. He was gonna play me; I don’t know why because he’s short and ugly,” says Simpson, between deadpan and serious.

“Hollywood has produced some absolute stinkers. The worst of which was Vertical Limit, which is the biggest load of bollocks I’ve ever seen in my life. They schmaltz it like K2, they just make it a joke like Cliffhanger, or Vertical Limit — you have to be brain-dead to think that’s a realistic film. But I signed knowing that Hollywood would do this.

“When [production company] Darlow Smithson came up after the Cruise deal had fallen through and said ‘We’d like to make a drama documentary,’ I thought actually this might be the way to make a good, faithful, powerful film. And when they brought Kevin MacDonald on board, who’s an Oscar-winning documentary director, I thought ‘Good God, these guys are serious.’”

This is Real

Their approach to telling the story is an effective blend of dramatic re-enactment footage and documentary interviews with the real Simpson and Yates. It works better than a feature film would have. In that type of movie, Simpson explains, “Even though someone says it’s a true story, very quickly you forget it.

“What happens with this [the mix of interviews and reenactments] is you’re constantly flipping back to the real person saying ‘This is what happened’ and you’re thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, this is real, this is real.’ You’re never allowed to forget it and that becomes shocking.”

With the movie’s drama assured, Simpson and his friend Brian Hall, who headed the safety crew, worked to make the movie authentic. “When we saw the first screening I was with Brian and I was amazed that it was so faithful, and then I said to Brian, ‘What do you think?’ He said ‘It’s very good, but the climbing is crap.’ I said ‘Yeah, it looks like we’re climbing snow slopes, doesn’t it?’ So we just said to them, ‘Go back and do it again.’”

Climbers Look Up

“They went back to the Alps and put these poor actors on vertical ice falls. The mountaineers who’ve seen this have said it’s authentic, not just because we used 1980s gear — we’re using straight-handle ice axes, foot-fang crampons which are totally out of date now, we’re using old jackets and old clothing — we got it all right, and this is what climbers are really pernickety about. That was a lot to do with our input as climbers to tell them what to do.”

Indeed climbers seem to like the movie. After a preview screening in Denver (which has a big climbing community), a group of climbers praised Touching the Void as being the first climbing movie they didn’t look down on. They noticed that all the details were right, down to the ice bolts and overhand, figure-8 knots. In short, they agreed with Simpson, that Hollywood had never done justice to the climbing world. It took an independently-produced film from the U.K. to finally give climbers a movie they could look up to.

  • samantha: this was an amazing documentery that my class watched in english and at first we all thought that documenerys were verry boring untill we saw this one we just could not imagen how terrible it would have been up there for Joe and simon non of us said that we would have the guts to cut the rope but we came to the conclusion that we don't realy now what we would do beacuse we arn't in that conclusion so ask your self if it was the right thing to do no one realy nows what the right thing to do is we just go by what we hope is right and hope it will turn out ok for simon it would have been hard to stay up there for one hour and a halph he stayed there not nowing if Joe was alive or was dead and we think that he did not want to belive Joe was dead for a very long time and then he was slowly slipping down the mountain to so what els could he have done and we all think that he made the right choice it was a great thing that Joe did surve and this is a story that will not be foggoten anytime soon for it was a mirickle that joe did survive and it will always be remebered for that. February 19, 2006 reply
  • Joe Rider: I read the book and have seen the movie - both are really amazing stuff. I'd even go as far to say it's inspired me. If you haven't seen the film or read the book then do so ASAP. You may think that documentaries are boring, but this is so much more; to call it a documentary does it an injustice. You're in for a real treat, that I can promise you. July 15, 2009 reply