Over the Top (1915)
Sixty seven years before “Fitzcarraldo,” a small automobile club tried something similar – using ropes to haul a car over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Subtitled, “A Battle with the Elements,” this film documents their efforts, or at least purports to document them. I say “purports to” because some of the shots are clearly staged, suggesting at least re-creations of the actual events, although it does seem to me that the film crew genuinely accompanied the car on its trans-montane journey.
The film begins with the explanation that the Reno Commercial Club is offering a trophy for the first car to travel from San Francisco to Reno on the newly-opened road. We see a city street, a shiny new Buick, and three clean-cut strapping young men, departing on the journey. At first, the trip seems dusty and bumpy, but not too bad, and we get some nice travel footage of the mountains and quaint mining towns with wooden sidewalks. Then, things take a turn as we reach a level below the snow line where the road has largely turned into “bottomless” mud. Those young men don’t seem so clean anymore. Soon, every shot depicts two of them helping to push the car and take up slack on the ropes attached to trees and stumps that are being used to winch the vehicle along. What kind of road is this! It looks like a far more “extreme” sport than a simple drive in the country. The boys take time to scale a pole and plant some flags, and also set up camp near the summit to cook dinner, so there’s not much sense of urgency – maybe they’re the only ones in this race. They do finally make it across, and down into the valley, where they can speed along at a decent clip, arriving in Reno and receiving their trophy. I thought the Commercial Club should buy them a new car, they really tore up the old one on the crossing!
As I’ve suggested, the “documentary” aspect of this movie is at least a bit staged. Nearly every shot begins with the cameraman in front of the car, so they must have frequently stopped to give him time to get into position and set up. Presumably, the rest of the time, he rode in the fourth seat in that car, but of course we never see that. There are some simple pans, but not a lot of camera movement, and few close-ups on the men are shown – the emphasis is always the car and its position vis-à-vis the elements. I wonder if the Commercial Club hoped that this movie would increase travel to Reno – the message seems to be that it’s a pretty inaccessible place, for adventurers only.
Cast & Crew Unknown
Run Time: 12 Min
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