The first mountaineering
film in history

Cervino 1901?

Since an old film showing the ascent of the Matterhorn was found in Zermatt in 1953, it has long been regarded as the first mountaineering film ever made. But... Who made this film and when? Is this really the first mountaineering film in history?



> Frames from the film Cervino 1901, found in Zermatt in 1953.


The story of a find

In 1953, in an old cabinet of a former photographer from Zermatt, an early mountaineering film was found. It was a silent film from the first era showing the ascent of the Matterhorn by a group of guides through the Hornli ridge. The film had no titles or credits and, at the time, it was attributed to the American Frederick Burlingham and dated 1901 in what surely was an attempt to identify it as the first mountaineering film in history. The story of the finding was also dressed with a certain aura of legend and mystery since it was told that the original copy of the film had been lost forever in a shipwreck in the Atlantic and that this was the only print copy that left.

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

Frederick Burlingham was an American journalist based in Paris in the early years of the 20th century, where he wrote for US newspapers. A keen alpinist, and regular visitor of the Alpine geography, he gradually directed his professional interest to cinema, and in 1913 was hired by the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company of London to shot several travelogues showing landscapes and places of the Swiss Alps. One of those films was The ascent of the Matterhorn, for which he ventured to film the ascent of the Matterhorn from Zermatt by the Hornli ridge. The film was distributed in Europe and the United States sparking great interest among the audience and popularizing Burlingham as a daring filmmaker.




> 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?

In his book How to become an alpinist, Burlingham explains the details of the expedition he undertook with four local guides to film his Matterhorn ascent, which took place on July 2, 1913. In his account, he mentions the initial reluctance and skepticism from Zermatt's guides to accompany him on his project, hinting in some way that no one had dared such a challenge before: climbing the mountain carrying a 15kg camera, a 10kg tripod, 1,500 meters of film weighing about 30kg, and a plate camera. A mission that also had to be carried out in a single day and without the possibility of spending the night in an intermediate refuge (the Solvay cabin was built in 1917).

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).


Newspapers of the time and the marketing of the film contributed to make Burlingham known as a pioneer filmmaker. He was presented as The man who Kinematographed the Matterhorn and his achievement as one of the most brilliant in the history of kinematography; however, the American was not actually the first to step on the Matterhorn summit with a film camera.

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.


But despite the indisputable merit of the Italian, the truth is that Piacenza's film was not the first showing a Matterhorn ascent either. This honor belongs to the British Frank Ormiston-Smith, who in 1903, hired by the Charles Urban Trading Company, completed and filmed the ascent of the mountain from Zermatt by the Hörnli ridge, just the way Burlingham did, but nothing less than ten years before him.


Ormiston-Smith's film appeared under the title Ascent of the Matterhorn in the November 1903 edition of the Charles Urban Trading film catalog, in which the filming was presented as the conquest of the world's most famous mountain with a Bioscope camera, completed on September 28, 1903.

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 datet 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

In 1903, when Frank Ormiston-Smith embarked on the adventure of filming the Matterhorn ascent, he already had significant experience as a mountain cameraman. He had been making films in the Alps for the Warwick Trading Company, the most important of which was The ascent of Mont Blanc; a film showing an ascent to the top of Mont Blanc in 18 scenes. The film, shot in September 1902, was the first major mountain film to be shown widely in theaters, and its huge success is what one year later motivated Charles Urban (shortly after leaving the Warwick and founding his own company) to hire Ormiston-Smith to film, among others, the 1903 ascent of the Matterhorn.




> 1902 program presenting The ascent of Mont Blanc.


The first mountaineering film scenes

Before shooting The ascent of Mont Blanc in 1902, Ormiston-Smith shot in 1901 different mountaineering scenes that were part of the Warwick Trading Company film catalog. These scenes were presented in different selections under the title Alpine series (Ascent of the jungfrau, Ascending the Guggi Glacier, Climbing the Wetterhorn, Crossing the Mer de Glace, etc.). These shots didn't show consecutive scenes of the same ascent, but were separate and independent scenes taken to be screened, along with other varied scenes, rather as a collection of animated postcards than with a specific narrative purpose.

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...

At the 1900 Paris Exhibition, one of the pavilions, presented under the title Voyages Animés, was showing photographic and cinematographic images of the most beautiful sites in France. Among the collection of animated images screened, there were different scenes shot in Chamonix, including two shots showing a group of guides on the Mer de Glace. Those two scenes would be the first mountaineering scenes ever filmed, and although were presented during the spring of 1900, they were shot the year before, in May 1989.




> Frames from two scenes of Chamonix - La Mer de Glace, shot in 1989.


Summary of facts

Frederick Burlingham made The ascent of the Matterhorn in 1913 for the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company. The film was distributed internationally and although it wasn't lost in a shipwreck, we don't know of any preserved copy.

• 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.


Final conclusion

The first mountaineering scenes in film history are four scenes of guides and tourists on the Mer de Glace, and were shot in May 1989 by an unknown operator on behalf of the Lumière brothers for the 1900 Paris Exhibition.

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.



Sources

How to become an alpinist - Frederick Burlingham, 1914
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



 

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