Screenshot: Wings Over Everest

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.

I watched Wings Over Everest, a half-hour “documentary” that won an Oscar in the defunct Best Short Subject (Novelty) category back in 1936, because I’ve long been fascinated by the life of one of its directors, Geoffrey Barkas. He was a specialist in adventure footage, best remembered for directing the African unit on the 1937 adaptation of King Solomon’s Mines, but when World War II broke out, he became the head of the British military’s famous Middle East camouflage division. The unit was composed of avant-garde painters, set designers, zoologists, and even professional stage magicians, and during the North African campaign, they invented ingenious ways to disguise hundreds of tanks as trucks, built dummy supply lines and pipelines, and, in one of their most famous special effects tricks, painted a trompe l’oeil optical illusion on a water desalination plant to make it look like it had been destroyed in a bombing raid. Operation Bertram, which led to the major Allied victory at the Second Battle Of El Alamein, is considered Barkas’ masterpiece and represents a unique interchange between the techniques of the set and the theater of war.

Wings Over Everest tells the story of a sort of publicity stunt expedition funded in 1933 by Lady Houston—an elderly, very rich, aviation-obsessed, pro-colonialist widow who had once been a chorus girl—to fly a biplane over the top of Mt. Everest, which wouldn’t be successfully ascended for another 20 years. It has that stilted charm you find in a lot of early adventure documentaries, with lots of blatantly staged scenes and wooden attempts at humor by authentic British gentlemen explorers whom no one would mistake for actors, kitted out in pith helmets, jodhpurs, and, yes, even monocles. Barkas’ co-director was Ivor Montagu, a communist film critic and a really interesting figure in his own right; he edited or helped produce many of Alfred Hitchcock’s early films and was a champion table tennis player who served as the first chairman of the International Table Tennis Federation. You can never definitively say who did what with these sorts of things, but if I had to guess, I’d pin some of the more Soviet-influenced moments of Wings Over Everest on Montagu, who knew Sergei Eisenstein personally.

The entire montage that depicts the construction of the biplane—through close-ups, dissolves, and primitive stop-motion animation—is very neat, as is the actual flight over Everest, which almost seamlessly combines footage shot from the plane with staged shots of the pilots. For whatever reason, I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries from around this period, including way too much footage of post-World War II war crimes trials and firing squad executions. Mostly, I’ve come to be fascinated with the priests who attend to the condemned in the seconds right before and after a gruesome death. But these are things that normal people probably shouldn’t watch. I did, however, revisit John Huston’s tremendous 1946 film about psychologically traumatized veterans, Let There Be Light, a major visual and narrative influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. The early round of interviews between military psychologists and veterans (some of which are quoted in The Master’s dialogue) is really something to see. The static shot-reverse-shot camerawork of these scenes—by Stanley Cortez, who shot The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night Of The Hunter, and several films for Samuel Fuller, among others—has a penetrating simplicity.