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The Great White Whale Heads To Doc Edge


The Great White Whale is set to have its Gala Premiere at Christchurch’s Lumiere Cinema on Saturday June 29th at 10.30am as part of the Doc Edge documentary festival.

The Great White Whale actually isn’t a Whale. It’s a mountain. A mountain almost no-one has heard of. On an Island most people have never heard of. Ironically, the name of the Island is Heard Island.

Heard Island is a snowy volcanic island that rears out of the wild Southern Ocean like a Great White Whale. It is named after the person who first sighted it, the eagle -eyed Mrs Heard, who pacing the deck of a ship that had set a course a little south of the normal shipping route, alerted her husband, the Captain, and it was put on the charts.

The news soon spread to sealers and last century they plundered its wildlife until it became uneconomical to do so. It was during this period that its highest peak was named Big Ben, in honour of one of the legendary Heard Island sealers.

Later it became a British possession, and in 1947 it was given to Australia. And thus, at the stroke of a pen, its highest mountain, Big Ben, 500 metres higher than Mt Kosciuszko, became Australia’s highest peak.

When the world’s highest peak, Everest was first climbed in 1953, Australia’s highest peak remained unclimbed.

As all New Zealanders know, although the attempt on Everest was a British Expedition, the two New Zealanders on the expedition, Edmund Hillary and George Lowe, played an almost crucial role in its success. Without George Lowes route preparation on a difficult lower section of the route, no one would have made the summit.

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New Zealanders, as this film shows, would also play an important role in the challenging quest to reach the summit of Australia’s highest mountain Big Ben.

The first serious attempt to climb Big Ben took place in 1963, 10 years after Everest was first climbed. A three-man team attempted it and almost died in five different ways, as the film graphically portrays.

Yet, although it had almost killed them, two of those men, Dr Grahame Budd and Warwick Deacock were obsessed with trying again. They likened themselves to Captain Ahab with their shared obsession to overcome their Moby Dick- The Great White Whale.

They decided to charter a yacht and sail to the Island, a 4000km journey each way, through the world’s wildest seas.

And like the British on Everest, they would need the help of New Zealanders.

The first New Zealander to help was Sir Edmund Hillary. Hillary was a friend of Warwick Deacock and agreed to be the Patron to give the expedition as he put it, “a thin veneer of respectability”. We are delighted that Hillary’s grandson Alexander has agreed to introduce the film at its Wellington Doc Edge Screening on July 8th.

The second New Zealander was Colin Putt, who was selected for the expedition both as Ships Engineer and as a climber. Colin was born near Auckland and was an early graduate of the School of Engineering at the University of Canterbury. He was a brilliant engineer with a mensa IQ and John Crick’s description of him “could fix anything with anything, and make it last forever” isn’t far from the truth. In the film we will see the 14 seater car Colin built himself, hear how he solved a problem on the boat using Kellogs Cornflakes, and how, scared the anchor wasn’t strong enough, went to the end of a railway line at their last port of call and oxy-cut off the last half meter of each rail, because the train would hit the buffer before it needed that part of the rail. These two rail ends were welded to the sides of the anchor to strengthen it.

Another New Zealander selected was Philip Temple. He was a brilliant climber and was in the team that made the first ascent of Carstenz Pyramid (know called Punchak Jaya) in Indonesia. He also did entomological fieldwork there and elsewhere and was selected for the Heard Island Expedition, as climber, entomologist and journalist. He wrote a book about the expedition entitled The Sea and the Snow and went on to become a well-known author of both fiction and non-fiction books. Philip will be on deck at the Gala Premiere and part of the Q&A that will follow the film.

Another Expedition member was John Crick, who went along as “apprentice expeditioner.” Although born in Australia, John has lived most of his life in New Zealand. After retiring from a long teaching career, John became a “Singer storyman”, travelling New Zealand telling stories and singing self-composed songs based on many aspects of New Zealand’s history and habitat.

John is truly the star of this film as he not only tells the story, but sings the story, as befits the epic saga that their Heard Island Expedition was. Additional music for the film was composed by Paul Jarman, and the soundtrack of this film is one of its greatest assets. Someone has said that you can sit through this film with your eyes closed and still feel very glad you came.

John lives in Motueka, near Nelson. He is very well known there and the whole town has embraced the making of the film. A lot of the dialogue and songs were recorded there, and there have been town only test viewings of the film at its various stages of development, and tweaks made based on feedback. John too will be at the Gala Premiere and is preparing a special live “singer/storyman” introduction to the film.

Concurrent to the Motueka feedback experiment, Michael had been testing the waters internationally, sending evolving versions of the film to International Mountain Film Festivals. He was encouraged when the earliest version of the film won the Grand Prize at the International Mountain and Adventure Film Festival in Bilbao Spain last December.

Also at the Gala Premiere will be Dr Grahame Budd, who was on both expeditions featured in the film. Grahame first had the urge to climb Big Ben when he was Station leader of the Australian base on Heard Island in 1954-5, and apart from the expeditions featured in the film, has visited remote Heard Island more times than anyone else. He has long retired from his academic research into many aspects of physiology, and now, in his mid-nineties, is flying over from Sydney, specially for this Gala Premiere.

Also at the Premiere will be the filmmaker, Michael Dillon. Michael, though Australia born, was made an “honorary New Zealander” by Sir Edmund Hillary who worked with Michael on various projects over many decades. Michael was Cameraman Director on Sir Edmund’s Ocean to Sky expedition in 1977, and later on five other Hillary projects including the National Geographic Special Return to Everest, India, A Personal Encounter, A Journey to the Dawning of the Day and two films, twenty years apart, featuring Hillary’s work in Nepal, both called Beyond Everest.

Several years ago Michael revisited the Ocean To Sky material and incorporated interviews with all remaining expedition members for a Cinema Documentary feature called Hillary Ocean to Sky that had an all too brief run in New Zealand cinemas just before Covid hit.

Michael’s own association with Heard Island began by knowing Warwick Deacock as a teenager, through the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme that Warwick had helped introduce to Australia. Michael became the first person in Australia or New Zealand to receive the Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award. Michael was one of many who helped with odd jobs as the Schooner they had hired to sail to Heard Island was readied in Sydney.

Some years after the Expedition, in 1968, Michael accompanied Warwick Deacock on one of the first commercial treks to the Everest Region. Warwick was filming the trip, using the same camera he had used to film on Heard Island, and Michael assisted him, thus using a movie camera for the first time in his life. It was the beginning of an outdoor and adventure filming career that has now spanned more than 50 years. One highlight was a sea to summit Everest Expedition Michael conceived and filmed. Titled Everest Sea to Summit it received a record eight Grand Prizes at International Mountain Film Festivals. In 2022 Michael was awarded The Grand Prize by the International Mountain and Adventure Film Festivals for lifetimes achievements, the first time this award has been given to anyone from the Southern Hemisphere.

Michael and his wife self-funded The Great White Whale as a tribute to the Expedition and the Expeditioners, particularly Warwick Deacock, who had so influenced his early career. He hopes a Distributor will take it on for wider release in New Zealand and Australia.

The Great White Whale

As part of Doc Edge

26 June, Alice Cinema Christchurch

29 June, Lumiere Cinema Christchurch

8 July, The Capitol Cinema Auckland & The Roxy Cinema Wellington

15 July – 31 July, Virtual Cinema

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