The first mountaineering
> Frames from the film Cervino 1901, found in Zermatt in 1953.
The story of a find
The film was re-titled as Cervin 1901 or Cervino 1901, and in 2014, after being restored again, it was shown in several international film festivals, where it was presented as the first mountaineering film in history. But the truth is that all this story, that somehow has been sustained throughout this time, is full of inaccuracies...
Burlingham's Matterhorn film
> Burlingham's film poster and how the film was announced in the American magazine The Movie Picture World, on February 15, 1919.
The first filmmaker at the Matterhorn?
During the ascent, the team also had to face other difficulties such as the heavy and precarious mountain equipment, and the time they had to invest in preparing and positioning the camera to take every shot. Fortunately, the expedition was a success: they carried the camera up to the summit to take a panoramic from there, completed the descent without incidents, and the film could be finished.
> Pictures of the Burlingham Expedition. The last one shows Frederick Burlingham posing with the heavy camera on the summit. As can be seen in the first picture, the mountain was more covered in snow than in the film Cervin 1901 (see above).
Two years before Burlingham, in 1911, the Italian Mario Piacenza, equipped with an Ambrosio camera and under the patronage of Itala Film, filmed the ascent of the mountain by the Italian side. His splendid film, Ascensione al cervino, was completed in 1912 by adding intertitles and tinting some scenes, and was distributed internationally in Austria, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and the United States.
> Frames from the splendid film by Mario Piacenza, filmed in 1911 and showing the ascent of the Matterhorn by the Italian side.
The catalog, which included some pictures and the title and details of every scene, allows us today to make a comparison with the scenes of Cervin 1901 and verify the fact that, surprisingly, the coincidence is indisputable. We can affirm emphatically and without any doubt that the film found in Zermatt in 1953 is in fact Frank Ormiston-Smith's Ascent of the Matterhorn, and that, therefore, it would be dated from 1903, not from 1901. This fact is decisive in terms of the search for the first mountaineering film in history, since the Matterhorn film wasn't the first mountaineering film made by Frank Ormiston-Smith...
> One of the most singular scenes of Cervin 1901 shows a group of guides descending from a big rock in the valley (picture on the right). This scene is described in the Charles Urban Trading catalog highlighting the required skills to get off the rock. The catalog also shows a picture of the team posing on the top of the rock (image on the left). Both images were undoubtedly taken consecutively.
> Different frames of Cervin 1901 showing scenes that clearly match with some those presented in the Charles Urban Trading Co. film catalog.
Frank Ormiston-Smith, pioneer of mountain film
> 1902 program presenting The ascent of Mont Blanc.
The first mountaineering film scenes
It was the era of the beginnings of cinema. The cinematographic language was just starting to develop, and the mere reproduction of an animated image was, by itself, an spectacle. Just five years before, the Lumière brothers had presented their first film scenes (Workers leaving the Lumière Factory or Arrival of the train at La Ciotat, both from 1895). Nowadays, a film program based on a collection of unrelated scenes may seem strange and unable to attract viewers, but actually these viewers weren't so different from those that today can be seen queuing to try, just for a few seconds, a new virtual reality headset at any technology fair.
Thus, the first mountaineering films in history must be framed in the context of the birth of cinema; and although these isolated scenes may seem fragments that would not deserve to be considered as 'films' or 'movies', they really are from the point of view of the history of cinema and the development of the medium; so this would allow us to go back a little more in our search...
> Frames from two scenes of Chamonix - La Mer de Glace, shot in 1989.
Summary of facts
• In 1911 Mario Piacenza filmed the ascent of the Matterhorn by the Italian side for Itala Film. The film, Ascensione al cervino, from 1912, has been restored by the Museo Nazionale del Cinema. It can be watched here.
• Cervin 1901 is actually Frank Ormiston-Smith's Ascent of the Matterhorn. The film was shot in September 1903. The only preserved copy that we know of is the one found in Zermatt in 1953.
• In 1902, Ormiston-Smith shot The ascent of Mont Blanc, which would be the first film showing the practice of alpinism through different edited scenes. The BFI National Archive has a 35mm nitrate copy of it.
• In 1901, Ormiston-Smith shot several separate mountaineering scenes that were part of the Alpine series in the Warwick Trading Company catalog. We don't know of any preserved copy of any of the scenes.
• In 1900, different scenes from the most beautiful places in France were presented in the Voyages Animés pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exhibition. Among them, there were several scenes of less than a minute showing mountain guides on the Mer de Glace. These shots, taken in May 1899, would be the first mountaineering scenes in film history. Preserved and restored by the Institut Lumière, they have been released on DVD and Blu-ray.
The first mountaineering film edited in several scenes was The ascent of Mont Blanc (1902) by Frank Ormiston-Smith for the Warwick Trading Company. Cervin 1901 or Cervino 1901, the film found in Zermatt in 1953, is actually Frank Ormiston-Smith's Ascent of the Matterhorn, and was filmed in September 1903.
• Kinematographing the Matterhorn - Scientific American 110, March 1914
• Ascensione al Cervino - Mario Piacenza, 1912
• Charles Urban Trading Company Film Catalog - November 1903
• The ascent of Mont Blanc - Frank Ormiston-Smith, 1902
• Les régions françaises à l'Exposition universelle - Catalogue Lummière