Man vs nature – 127 Hours and North Face

127 Hours

Christmas rolled around and I still had not seen 127 Hours. So with much trepidation that was the movie chosen for Christmas eve. Of course the story of Aron Ralston, the intrepid mountain climber who got his hand stuck under a boulder in a rock fall, is very well known so one has a good idea what to expect from the film. The unexpected comes in the form of James Franco and Danny Boyle’s treatment of the subject matter. The cardboard cutout bad boy of Spiderman has grown up to be a fine actor, filled with fun and gravity at the same time.

The trip planning begins and as Aron (Franco) runs around throwing things into his backpack we are shown a Swiss Army knife that is too far back on a top shelf, out of reach, and the camera lingers on it for a few extra seconds. Similarly it lingers on a slowly dripping faucet in the apartment. Thus the stage is set, there will be moments when the Swiss Army knife will be sorely missed and water will be in extreme shortage. As in Aron’s book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, the movie zigzags between Aron’s past life and his present predicament and we wait with trepidation for what has to come. The video camera that Franco uses to film his days spent in the canyon is a stroke of genius, allowing him to talk and make the film less of a solitary outing; in essence we see Aron talking to Aron and his parents. It also gives us a view into the inner working of his mind, and an up to date account of how dire his straits get as the hours go by.

A. R. Rahman provided the music for the film. I found the opening sequence loud, a tone usually seen in films out of Mumbai and somewhat jarring in this one. The song with Dido was beautiful, but at various moments the orchestra would get loud as Aron struggled to get out of Blue John Canyon.

The cinematography is stunning, but Utah does a great job posing for the film! The red rocks and undulating hills, the deep narrow canyons, the hidden pools of blue water and the barren landscape are all spectacularly captured. However, the invitation sent out by the locale is soon negated by the extreme predicament of the solitary hiker. If we ever needed a message that there is safety in numbers and danger in solitude, this film provides it in ample measure! The gory ending of Aron’s entrapment, aided by a near spiritual experience (a hallucination?), and his eventual journey to safety, allows the viewer to release his pent up breath, and unclench those muscles in the belly, jaw. But even showing the real Aron still hiking in the wilderness with his hook forearm did little to reestablish in me a sense of comfort in the great outdoors!

North Face

If 127 Hours was most unsuited as a holiday film, the follow-up was a shockingly worse pick! 127 Hours showed us how a man with indomitable will could triumph over nature. Yes it was a harrowing tale, but not as harrowing as my next Man vs. nature film. The 2008 German fictional film North Face (German title Nordwand) has some basis in historical facts and recounts a famous 1936 attempt to climb the Eiger north face. The pair of German climbers Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) resign from the German army to make their attempt on the Eiger. Word is out that the German government is very anxious to see the peak scaled and they want the glory to be theirs. There is also a team of Austrians who are backed by a newspaper to scale the peak. Eventually the Austrians team up with the Germans who are further ahead, presaging the Anschluss, the Nazi-led incorporation of Austria into Germany. A young, awkward and gauche newspaper employee (and friend of the German climbers; Johanna Wokalek) looks to launch her career based on the story of the German triumph over the Eiger and is egged on in her quest by her cynical boss (Ulrich Tukur). Both stay at a luxury hotel at the foot of the Eiger and watch the attempt through telescopes, all the while trying to capture the audience reaction on camera.

We are told, as per legend, the Eiger is inhabited by an ogre – and that is how the mountain gets its name. As the two pairs of climbers start their ascent using an unconventional route, things start to slowly go very wrong. One of the Austrians gets hit on the head and opens up his scalp. They swing over a crevasse and after all four get across they withdraw the rope – and again the lingering of the camera tells us this was a bad idea. The fair weather soon turns foul and the four try to brave out a snowstorm clinging to a tiny ledge. Climbing without crampons (lost in a mishap), they hack out steps as they go across a snow field, wasting yet more precious time. Soon the injured Austrian is unable to keep us and after much acrimonious debate Toni decrees that they have to take the injured man back or he will die. By now the voyeur gang is getting ready to leave. The editor (Tukur) tells the young photographer that there is a story only in a triumphant ascent or a horrible mishap, none in an ignominious retreat! But she remembers her past friendship and her love for Toni and elects to stay, clambering out on to a ledge outside a railroad tunnel to look at the stranded climbers who were unable to retreat across the crevasse. A rescue is mounted, but fails. An avalanche takes the uninjured Austrian and now Toni has to climb down but runs out of pitons. The injured Andi is unable to handle the now near dead Austrian with a cracked and bleeding skull, and cuts the rope, leaving Toni with better odds of an escape. (Wikipedia tells us the rope was cut by Toni after the rescuers were able to determine that Andi and the Austrian were past help).

Another rescue is mounted but without enough length of rope. By now Toni is near death, having lost a glove and use of that arm. He does manage to unravel enough to get a length of rope down to pull up the rescue rope. But his knot is caught in the carabiner as he descends and he is unable to pull up his weight to free the knot. We watch in horror as Luisa (Wokalek) keeps trying to get him to respond and a near frozen man, suspended from a rope just a few dozen feet from her, unable to even raise his arm, simply dies of cold and exposure. The ogre claims all four young men, and it is a cruel death indeed as they die frozen, injured and helpless. Here again the survivor (Wokalek) is shown to move past the trauma of having lost a good friend and a man she loved, but the cruelty and indomitable will of nature leaves an indelible mark on our psyche.

As in 127 Hours, where the scenery moved back and forth between the man trapped in the canyon and his normal past life or imagined future life, here too we see a movement between the men battling out a blizzard on a cruel mountain and people partying in a posh hotel at the foot of the peak. What drives men to such adventures? Is it the quest for glory? Is it the endorphin high that, once experienced, is like a morphine addiction?

The footage of the climbers is stunning, real, giving that jaw and gut clenching sense of fear and danger that makes this one almost more traumatic than 127 Hours. The mountain, with its treacherous slopes, snowy plains, and crumbling face, is almost villainous – never once beckoning, rather always repulsing like a bad mad villain. The performances are stunning, at par with what one saw in the Everest documentary – no one seems to be acting here. For me this film was better than 127 Hours, way more gut wrenching and approachable, and so infinitely sad in the end. The background music you ask? Never heard much of anything other than the whoosh of blizzard force winds, and it was not missed either!

My recommendation? Watch both, but NOT back to back, and choose a time when you can handle the subject matter.

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