by Van Townsend, Guest Contributor.
May 10, 2014
History wonks and running buffs will vie for who loves this movie the most. “Bannister: Everest on the Track” is as much an historical study of Britain’s psychological, if not almost physical, need for something – anything – to erase the woes of World War II as it is a fresh look at the quest for the first sub-4:00 mile, the heretofore deemed physically impossible. By God, we need to bring back the Mile! And this engaging documentary goes a long way in doing so.
I’m not going to spoil the surprise “Oh, wow, that’s sooo cool” (and there are plenty) visuals and interviews in the film; however, I will tell you of three people who were pivotally unique to this anniversary enterprise. George Dole, Geoffrey Weston and Sir Christopher Chattaway. The first pair are new finds. Mssrs. Ratcliffe and Moser (the two men responsible for the film) discovered Dole and Weston after thorough inquires and a smidgen of luck.
George Dole had matriculated at Yale and was studying Theology at Oxford in 1954. Lo and behold, he was IN the epic race! The now-retired minister living in Maine, Dole provides personal insight into an event we all wish we could have attended.
Geoffrey Weston was an Oxford student spectator at the milestone event. He still clutches his “Athletics Meeting” program, complete with scribbled lap split times he had frenetically jotted down at Iffley Road. Weston went on to become a successful international journalist. Watch him closely. He is hilariously lively and almost steals the show.
Sadly, Christopher Chattaway – Bannister’s close friend and pacemaker in the race- passed away this January. In possibly his last interview, he enlivens the enterprise. This puckish pacer won’t be here in person to celebrate with Sir Roger; luckily we see him do so for posterity in the comfortable chats.
But this project is about more than a foot race against time. It is about an entire country’s cultural race to repair their damaged fate. Britain’s Empire under the never-setting Sun had been ravaged by WWII. Her loss of superpower status was a demoralizing, rationed, tough privation pill to swallow. The documentary informs us with painstakingly complied footage from live Blitz-bombing and fatiguing infrastructure damage. We witness pictorials and personal accounts of long food doling queues interspersed with Oxford professors explaining England’s precarious position in a long tunnel with little hope of light at the end.
Britain suffers yet another blow as King George VI (The King’s Speech) dies, but a candle flickers alight with a young female’s Coronation. We see splendid footage of Queen Elizabeth‘s carriage rolling slowly along the Mall. In her serene -but surely nervous – stately walk, we are reminded of her youthful regal beauty. We can’t help but hope with the brimming crowds that a difficult life might get better. That reaching is buoyed by that very morning dawn’s news of a British-led Expedition crackling over the radio wires telling us that Edmund Hillary had conquered Mt Everest, or Peak 15 as it was once known. This film project takes its title from that crowning feat.
While the soon-to-be knighted Sir Edmund Hillary was a member of the British Commonwealth, he was a native New Zealander, barely touched by the cacophony of war. Roger Bannister was a native Brit whom you will see and hear was slammed by the violence and fears of Germany’s Wagnerian assault from the heavens.
As an articulate Bannister tells us of his childhood and adolescent years in the film’s interviews, we can combine Malcolm Gladwell‘s “Outliers” and David Epstein‘s “The Sports Gene” theses of Greatness Development. Hint: pay attention to the Bath bicycling bits and the Quick Responder training tales.
Before the war, Britain had bloomed best in its Sporting Tradition, but the amateur accolades leading to Olympic accomplishments were blown off the podiums in the 1952 Helsinki Games by the freshly minted comic book Superman, the United States. America’s approach was the antithesis of England’s scholar-athlete ideal. We garner in the movie that Bannister was the epitome of that disappearing dream. Can the lunchtime-trained runner immersed in his medical school studies inject the booster shot into Britain’s flagging but still flickering morale?
I won’t tell you. I’ll let Oxford’s dons and track’s legends relate the story. I’ve said too much already. I’m too excited by this celluloid venture, so I’ll end here. But this movie moves us and teaches us. Time’s “Winged Chariot” burns brightly in this 60th anniversary celebration of Bannister’s barrier-breaker.