The year is 1959 and a group of explorers are flying over Greenland, not because it is that country they are to be visiting, but because this is the quickest way to get from Europe to New Guinea. At this time, the second largest island in the world, almost twice the size of France, was largely uncharted though believed to be inhabited, but with this exploration they were planning to find out for certain. They started at one end of the island, and made their way north along the river in a trip which would take seven months and prove physically demanding, especially as most of the tribes they did meet had no interest in assisting them...
The Sky Above, The Mud Below was the winner of the Best Documentary Oscar in 1961, and in spite of there being no percieved audience for it, on its wider release it became a runaway success, very different from the kind of travelogues which might have captured the same audience in a Hollywood movie, for example. In many ways, this was the inspiration for the mondo movies which happened along later in the decade, although here were no claims to sensationalism as this was strictly scientific in its purpose, and not produced to exhibit the strangeness of other cultures deigned more primitive than those watching the film.
Nevertheless, one wonders if at least part of that success was down to the fact that it was probably the first time many of those watching had ever seen quite so much nudity on a cinema screen, or were fascinated by the more repulsive aspects of the journey, from the way some tribes used their own blood as a glue for their paraphernalia or worse, hunted the heads of rivals and even turned to cannibalism. Not that we see them feasting on their victims, there is some degree of restraint here, though we do see plenty of skulls and bones; but do not despair, fans of the lurid, as there is enough to turn the stomach of the less hardy members of the audience included.
The narration, certainly in the English language version, is curiously laid back in light of the kind of hardship the explorers went through and rarely conveys the levels of tension that must have been present when people on the expedition started to die. There is some passion aroused when dispatching with leeches - the feeling that there needed to be revenge against them was definite - but mostly they appear to accept their lot with great stoicism. We never hear the leaders speak, so there are no interviews, not least with the tribes for as they point out it would have been impossible to understand what they were saying anyway, so isolated from the outside world had these people been: they were literally stone age dwellers.
Fortunately our intrepid investigators never had to defend themselves against attack from those they encountered, but aside from two or three tribes, most of them politely warned the invaders to keep their distance and did not even supply food or shelter to them as the conditions grew harsher. Quite a contrast to those earlier scenes of the whites being inducted into their fold with even a taste of milk straight from the breast to cement their new alliance, not something you can imagine David Attenborough doing on one of his programmes. But these lighthearted moments contrast with just how bad things got for this team, as they fell victim to dysentery and malaria and had to rely exclusively on food and medicine packages dropped from planes flying precariously overhead. The passage of time may have diluted the immediacy of these adventures, but it is undeniably impressive for being the first chance the rest of the world got to see some seriously obscure landscapes even if the threat of patronising is never far away.