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The Dragon’s Back: Review (spoiler free).

For those of you who couldn’t make it to the ShAFF this year, but were curious about the winning (running) film ‘The Dragon’s Back’, here’s my review.  I promise not to give anything away.

Firstly, I loved last year’s ‘Unbreakable‘ and was therefore skeptical that another running film could pull off the job of filming the action during a long and difficult route while adequately conveying the feeling among participants.  I was pleasantly surprised.

The name ‘Dragon’s Back‘ refers to the race from Conwy Castle in the north, tracing the mountainous spine of Wales southwards, over 5 days with the optimum route being approximately 200 miles with 45,000 feet of ascent, to finish at Carreg Cennen Castle.

The route

The route

Director Rich Heap and the team from SlackJaw Film have not only managed to capture the action every step of the way (following key participants along the route), but also the emotion.  From Elite runners to plodders, it was clear to see the demands of the course (fierce) as well as the strength of mind required from those who would – at some point during the 5 day race, fall apart physically.

Despite a relatively small team (I believe a crew of 5) the action ranged from epic to intimate.  The tough course – with its considerable ups and downs, was easy to follow thanks to detailed on-screen graphics that included day, map, time/distance and race position of those on screen.  The photography showed Wales in all its glory, thanks in part to a collection of high angled shots highlighting the isolation and exposure on certain sections.  The hand held tracking shots were even more impressive, having been recorded on the move, over the exact same terrain the runners were navigating.  No mean feat.  The combination of these establishing shots, and close up ‘fly on the wall’ moments offers the audience an insight into a surreal adventure – that is essentially still a very personal and at times – extremely lonely activity.  It’s exciting and glamorous watching lone runners covering miles and miles of rugged landscape, against some of the world’s most breathtaking backdrops, but down at ground level the real test is internal.

The film’s biggest achievement – (for me) is that it reveals (as much as possible) the battles each runner went through, from one minute to the next, exhausting all of their stamina, then digging deep for the intense mental endeavour – suffering for as long as possible without slowing to a stop.  Not all were successful.

During the film’s 67minute running time, we see the enormity of the race, the personalities of those taking part, and share some of the highs and lows along the way.  What I enjoyed most was seeing some of the interaction between competitors, both on and off the course and the changes in mood between day 1 and 5.  It became clear that there were particular strengths each competitor came to rely upon, in order to reach the finish (or in dealing with defeat).  There was enough humour to keep things fun, and the filmmakers never trivialised the achievements of all who turned up and had a go.  The parts that had the greatest value for me were footage of runners simply ‘coping’.  For around 20 seconds or so we get to watch one runner just putting one foot in front of the other.  It doesn’t sound like much, but I’ve never seen a film that showed the pain and punishment in such gruesome detail.  Dispensing with the bravado, and just showing an athlete hanging on for dear life – that’s what stayed with me ever since.  Too many documentaries reveal the details in post race interviews or through reconstruction.  It made a nice change to be along for the rough, as well as the smooth.

Easy Peasy

Easy Peasy

The pace and editing allowed for the relatively short running time to pass quickly, and left me wishing we could put it back on straight away.  It really was a brilliant piece of work, with huge entertainment value thanks to the eccentric characters throughout, the surprising results from some very capable athletes having a bad day despite previous success in similar events, and the general feeling that we were witnessing something special.  It was, after all – the first time in 20 years that the race (first run in 1992) had taken place, which made it all the more impressive that some of the same faces from that inaugural race returned to complete it a second time.

So it’s a film that – to the best of its ability, reveals the mental and physical demands of ultra distance running, with none of the glamour or showbiz that dogs similar features.  Stunning visuals, fun to watch and informative to boot.  Since the option of a second take was out of the question, it’s a minor miracle that the film turned out as well as it did.

These aren't your average hills.

These aren’t your average hills.

Next to Unbreakable, the big advantage here is that there was plenty of coverage when people met or passed each other.  As good as it was, Unbreakable felt at times as if it were assembled from many different races, with no footage of people catching or passing each other (something the entire film built toward, but never delivered).

Results wise, well……it’d be stupid to say anything about how it all turns out.  My advice would be to grab a copy with both hands.  The DVD includes additional scenes, plus director commentary and interviews, so in my view it goes from 5 out of 5 – to essential.  I’ve ordered a DVD and can’t wait to see it again.  It almost made me want to go have a go at it myself!  (almost).

Purchase your copy here!

Images courtesy of Alistair Lee/Dragon’s Back 2012

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