Don Whillans is revered as one of the true greats of British climbing. His fierce routes on gritstone and the mountains of Wales and Scotland are still today held in awe as rites of passage that every climber must face up to. Until recently the ability to quote one of his infamous stories was held with almost as high regard. Leo Dickinson’s film biography should introduce a new generation of climbers to these tales and hopefully the legends will keep getting passed on.
Dickinson’s film is very much the affectionate tribute and stands in marked contrast to Jim Perrin’s recent biography “The Villain”, which exposed the darker side of Whillans’ character. There’s only one point at which Whillans’ philandering is touched on but apart from that it’s very much the traditional “Andy Capp” figure of legend boozing, fighting, burning off foreign climbing rivals all served up with lashings of Whillans’ infamous dry put-downs.
The narrative starts with the Whillans’ partnership with Joe Brown on the gritstone edges but perhaps too swiftly moves on to his expedition phase from the early sixties onwards. Reconstructions of Whillans’ key climbs are scattered through the film but I would have liked to have heard a little more about those early days with the Rock and Ice Club. I suspect this is because there wasn’t any archive film for Dickinson to work with whereas the expeditions are surprisingly well documented. Perhaps skipping this rock phase is a blessing as I suspect to many climbers it will probably come as a surprise to realise just how well travelled and accomplished a mountaineer Whillans was. His numerous trips to Patagonia, including the first ascent of Paine’s Central Tower with Bonington, his first ascent of Poincenot, the great ascents in the Alps culminating in the first ascent of Freney Pillar leads on to Whillans’ extended affair with the Eiger and then the big Himalayan trips with the success on Annapurna and the frustrations of the international Everest expeditions are all covered.
Dickinson has managed to access some superb archive footage such as Vic Bray’s film of the 1962 first ascent of the Central Tower of Paine with Bonington which amongst its surprises shows Whillans slack lining at base camp. This is mixed in with photographs, audio recordings, readings from Whillans’ own writings along with Dickinson’s own film. The latter is crucial as Dickinson shares the same Patagonian and Eiger obsessions as Whillans and Dickinson’s film on the Bonatti Pillar and Everest are also vital in bringing the stories to life. I personally preferred the sections of film when the real Whillans spoke rather than re-enactments by Ian MacNaught Davis and Derek Walker which seemed a little too laboured. Whillans’ stature as a climber and his bristling wit shine through the film but just as interesting to me is how the film reveals what a calculating and cautious mountaineer he was.
As well as his own expeditions we get Whillans’ views on subjects ranging from Maestri, Messner through to the Yeti. There’s even footage of Whillans scuba diving and then free falling out of a plane, showing that the extreme sports allrounder wasn’t invented by Red Bull and Leo Houlding. The finish of the film is especially strong with Whillans teaming up again with Joe Brown for a repeat of their climb Cemetery Gates on a soaking wet Cromlech. The shots of Whillans tanking down the pass on his motorbike wearing as Brown says a helmet to keep his fag dry are classic. Even Whillans climbing despite carrying an extra 5 stone impresses and the rapport between the two greats plus the obvious respect from Brown is a fitting finale.
The DVD has several extras including more Whillans stories from Greg Child, a long audio of an interview by Ken Wilson, outtakes and perhaps most interesting considering recent developments a debate by British climbers including Whillans on the controversial Maestri bolt fiasco on Cerro Torre. Whillans was definitely a man of his time and as the film admits anything involving him wouldn’t pass today’s tests for political correctness. What you do get is a fascinating, warm and at times revealing film which tells very well the story of one of British climbing’s true greats.
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