Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Sky Above, the Mud Below

(Le Ciel et la boue, France, 1961)

I have often said, while viewing one of the marvelous nature videos we have seen from David Attenborough and others, “I am so glad they went there and filmed this, so I don’t have to.” Seldom have I meant it more. This was a rather notorious film back when it was released, simply because it may have been the first film publicly shown in the US to show full-frontal nudity. (Remember, in those days teenage boys peeked covertly at the black breasts on display in the National Geographic.) That of course is a really silly reason to go see a film, but there it is. Some people did. But there are plenty of better reasons to see it.

It is the filmed account of a group who set out to be the first white men to cross Dutch New Guinea. This was when the island was still divided between Holland and Australia; these days the eastern part is an independent nation and the west is Indonesian. They passed through some of the last land that had never been visited by white people. And there was a good reason for that. If the land didn’t kill you, the natives might very well do so. They were serious head-hunters, and went to war frequently with any neighboring tribe. Who knew if they would welcome these intruders, or kill them?

It turned out that they were more or less welcomed by all the tribes they encountered. Maybe they were just too strange to be worth killing, maybe it was more interesting to study them. Many later visitors were in fact killed, but these guys got along well, and came to respect the natives … though, in the language of the day, they still kept referring to them as savages. Still, they were quite enlightened for that time.

Regarding that nudity, the women wore very brief pants woven from sago leaves, and the men seemed to go through life entirely naked. Not a stitch. Though some wore what looked like a dried seed pod of some kind … on their penises. It looked horribly uncomfortable.

In the end, it was the land that nearly killed these guys. They went upriver, and then over almost vertical mountains that reached up to 10,000 feet. It was mid-winter, so even though they were almost at the equator, there was snow up there. All of the bearers they hired had never seen snow, never actually been cold! And that was hardly all. They had to bridge raging rivers. They took much longer than they had planned, and air-dropping food was a very dangerous deal for the pilots out of the capital. They were eaten alive by mosquitoes, leeches, and flies. Flies! They were covered in flies. Three bearers died. When they finally found a place where a seaplane could land, it was on a river which flowed so swiftly that the floatplane had to head against the current at full throttle. Two bearers and two expedition members, including the chief cameraman, had to be flown out.

And that, to me, is possibly the most remarkable thing about this seven-month trip through a green hell. They carried all that film out! Even when they were starving, they never abandoned their camera and their precious canisters of film.

It’s an amazing movie. An interesting fact: The producer, Arthur Cohn, could not find a distributer, so he agreed to take no fee but a percentage of the gross. On the second day of release on 42nd street in New York, the line was three blocks long. Incredible word-of-mouth! He made more money on this film than any other he ever produced, and he won no fewer that six Oscars, for Foreign Language films and documentaries like this.