Vintage film reels still have the power to evoke awe, even in a digital age when CGI can virtually create any world the human mind cares to imagine.
That's especially pertinent now, as the Royal Geographical Society is releasing films of scientific explorations it originally sponsored in the early 20th century — the early days of film.
And while these grainy, scratchy films of old — now available online — may lack the polish and eye-filling spectacle of a 21st-century IMAX production, there’s something undeniably compelling about seeing theactual expeditions, as they happened.
The footage, some of which hasn’t been seen since the days of the Wright Brothers, is being digitized for posterity, so future generations can access them with a single click of a computer keyboard or iPad.
The footage, much of which was thought to be lost to history, ranges from the first-known aerial footage of Mount Everest — shot by one-time fighter pilot Maj. Latham Valentine Stewart Blacker in 1933, some 20 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain — to British army officer Ralph Bagnold’s crossing thousands of miles of Saharan sands in a town car though Libya in 1932.
Bagnold wasn’t entirely a wacko suffering the effects of heatstroke; his son Stephen told BBC World News late last week that his father took careful measurements along the way to understand how sand is moved by the wind, and later published several research papers on the subject.
History doesn’t always repeat itself, but it does have a way of foreshadowing the future, often in unexpected and hard-to-predict ways.
Bagnold’s findings in the Libyan Desert would be used by the American and European space agencies in their early explorations of Mars, principally in the design of rovers that can cross Mars’ sands without becoming stuck.
There’s something awe-inspiring about seeing old aerial footage, shot by adventurer Aubery Rickards, of Hadhramaut, dubbed “the Manhattan of the desert,” a region in Yemen home to an civilization of skyscrapers, 10 to 12 stories high, constructed almost entirely of mud, that date back to the late 15th century and remain inhabited to this day.
The Royal Geographical Society films are especially compelling today because they shed light on a simpler time, when there were still places to be explored, and existential threats like climate change and mass extinctions were largely unknown.
The earlier films in the RGS collection reflect a brighter, more hopeful world at the time, Nottingham University professor Mike Heffernan told BBC World’s Pallab Ghosh this past weekend. The heady optimism and spirit of adventure shown in the films would prove a marked contrast to the desolation of Europe after the two world wars.
Explorers Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff first journeyed through Bhutan and Tibet in 1933, Heffernan noted, the same year James Hilton wrote his book The Lost Horizon.
Lost Horizon introduced the concept of ‘Shangri-La,’ Heffernan told BBC News, “this perfect place . . . a mountain kingdom, a vestigial world of peace and harmony, the world so obviously left behind by the industrial warfare they’d gone through.”
Past is not always perfect, but it can sometimes point to a better future. If only by reminding us of what could’ve been.