The Bootleg Files: Wings Over Everest

BOOTLEG FILES 685: “Wings Over Everest” (1934 Academy Award-winning documentary short).

LAST SEEN: One YouTube.




Everyone knows that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first men to reach the peak of Mount Everest with their landmark 1953 expedition up the Himalayan mountain. However, most people are unaware that they were not the first men to see the top of the world’s highest mountain. That achievement belonged to a 1933 aerial expedition led by Sir Douglas Douglas-Hamilton (also known as Lord Clydesdale) and Lieutenant David McIntyre. Sadly, that accomplishment has been mostly forgotten today – except for Academy Award completists who know about the expedition through a short documentary called “Wings Over Everest.”

Douglas-Hamilton was 30 and McIntyre was 28 years old when they secured financial support from Lady Lucy Houston, a one-time chorus girl who married very well on three separate occasions and became one of Britain’s most prominent philanthropists. Lady Houston was an aviation enthusiast and she was eager to see her country score an aeronautic coup by flying through skies that had yet to be piloted. Thanks to her generosity of a £100,000 grant, the flight over Everest was financed.

McIntyre and Douglas-Hamilton made their historic odyssey using biplanes that were not pressurized to withstand the extraordinary conditions above Everest; the pilots used bottled oxygen and specially designed flight suits to withstand the elements. The flights took off from Purnea, India, on April 3, 1933, with only 15 minutes’ worth of fuel to power the primitive aircraft. The fact that both biplanes achieved their mission and returned safely was considered a feat of technological marvel and personal courage.

The following year, Gaumont-British released a documentary on this expedition. “Wings Over Everest” was helmed by one of the oddest pairings of directors in cinema history: Geoffrey Barkas, a World War I military hero who was among the pioneering creative artists in Britain’s transition from silent to sound films, and Ivor Montagu, a Communist activist who was also the founder of the International Table Tennis Federation.

Barkas and Montagu corralled the participants in the aerial expedition to recreate how they made history. Although there is a blatant artifice in recreating the conversations that led up to the flight, the presentation of the footage from Everest’s peak is an invaluable cinematic record.

“Wings Over Everest” opens with a pair of British aristocrats – one even has a monocle – hiking through the Himalayas and pausing to observe Everest in its glory. “The absolute crest,” one of the aristocrats says with perfect Oxbridge diction. “The pinnacle of the world. And we know no more about it than we do of the moon.” The pair talk about a failed attempt to climb Everest and ponder the possibility of flying over the mountain while a camera captures the footage from above.

The film then cuts to a room where the sign “Mount Everest Flight Committee” is posted on the wall. The members of the expedition are seated around the table and talk about making the flight – the men are clearly not comfortable being on camera and their conversation is wooden. We then visit the home of Lady Houston, where Douglas-Hamilton makes his case about the aviation conquest of Everest. Lady Houston is seen luxuriating in a bed full of fluffy pillows – she is wearing a turban, fur stole and two rows of pearls with her silk bathrobe – unlike the expedition planners, she clearly loves being on camera. Douglas-Hamilton assures her that flying over the world’s highest mountain in a biplane is no more dangerous “than walking across Hampstead Heath on a foggy night” – and the noblewoman is immediately satisfied to sponsor this mission.

Next comes a montage of the preparation for the flight – and one can assume that the Communist co-director Montagu assembled this part, as it ruthlessly copies the montage style perfected by the great Soviet filmmaker Eisenstein. We see women at sewing machines putting together the flight suits needed to withstand the brutally cold temperatures and chemists creating the oxygen tanks and fuels needed for high altitudes. The airplane parts and flight equipment are then boxed up and shipped to India, which was still a British colonial territory. The flight team have a very proper discussion of how to fly over Everest, very casually citing the possibility of failure – and the stiff-upper-lip attitude over the planning seems more in keeping for scheduling a private club’s cricket match than taking aircraft to hitherto untraveled heights.

The highlight of “Wings Over Everest” is the footage of Everest’s apex. By contemporary standards, where HD color cinematography offers uncommon depth to nature’s majesty, the footage is a bit disappointing. But, in fairness, the camera operators could only accommodate 16mm black-and-white equipment – and considering the biplanes were flying at the then-unapproachable height of 33,000 feet amid winds of 100,000 miles per hour in a 50 degree below zero environment, with the crew relying on oxygen through feed-pipes to their mouths, the fact they came out of this alive with usable film was a triumph. And back in the day, audiences never saw anything like this.

The film ends with the fliers returning safely to their base camp. In obviously recreated footage, Douglas-Hamilton was asked what the mission was like. He looks down from his biplane and replies with stereotypical British stoicism: “All right.” The camera goes for reaction shots to all present and displays another stereotype with close-up views of Britons with remarkably bad teeth.

“Wings Over Everest” opened in 1934 in London and was popular with British audiences. Two years later, the film was picked up for U.S. release by Educational Pictures, a low-budget production company that specialized in two-reel comedy films. Radio announcer Lowell Thomas was recruited to record a new narration that would be easier on the ears of American audiences than the clipped British speech used in the original film. The little studio entered the film in the Academy Award competition for Best Short Subject (Novelty) and it competed against MGM’s 3D experimental short “Audioscopiks” and Universal Pictures’ African travelogue “Camera Thrills.” “Wings Over Everest” won the award, marking the first time that a British-produced nonfiction film received the Oscar.

“Wings Over Everest” was never released in the U.S. in a commercial video format. A copy of the British version of the film is on YouTube – the British Film Institute has the film on its website, but it is not accessible to American viewers. While this is obviously a must-see for anyone trying to see every Oscar-winning film, it is also a quaint reminder of what the world was like when there will still challenges that awaited man’s conquest.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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