Righting a wrong, the movie ‘The Ascent’ and just what did the screenwriter David Wiltse think he was doing?

It’s not often that you see something that is so, so wrong. There are movies that are travesties and they have become a bit of a legend. This particular film isn’t a legend or even a particularly good film, but it’s infamous in our house.
The book, ‘No picnic on Mount Kenya’ by Felice Benuzzi, an Italian climber who broke out of a prisoner-of-war camp in Africa, is still in print and I saw that the last reprint was available on Amazon.
One of the reviewers wondered if it had been turned into a film, which unfortunately it had. It’s called ‘The Ascent’ (1994) directed by Donald Shebib, screenplay by David Wiltse and starring a number of well-known actors.
Now, the book is about a group of Italian prisoners of war, some of whom were mountaineers and how they tried to climb Mount Kenya.
The broke out (walked out) and did their climb and then walked back in, as there was nowhere else to go.
The actual story, from the British side is just as interesting.
The camp commander (who had he lived, would have been my father-in-law) was born in Criccieth in north Wales in 1913. He left the family dairy farm in 1927 and went off to Lever Brothers in Liverpool, lied about his age and was posted to Nigeria as a colonial management trainee.
He didn’t like this life, so walked away from the job and signed up as a deck-hand on a ship from Lagos, jumping ship at Mombasa in Kenya.
He wanted to go to Nairobi, but had no cash for the train fare, so he just started walking, all 340 miles. Yes, he walked along the railway track all that way. That would have made a good book on its own, but unfortunately he died in 1961, never having written about this quite amazing walk.
Back to just before the war, my father-in-law, called Robin ended up in a place called Kericho. He noticed that the soil was acidic and remembered from his short time at agricultural college, that this type of soil was good for tea, so he started planting the first Kericho tea estate, which ironically now belongs to Lever Brothers (Unilever).
With the threat of war, Robin joined the King’s African Rifles as a reservist officer. Though he claimed to his sons that he won his medals for ‘conspicuous gin drinking’ he did see victorious action in Abyssinia against the Italian army.
Having routed the Italians, (obviously not single handedly!) Robin was sent to a place called Nyrie with 14,000 Italian prisoners-of-war. There was just one small problem…the British army had forgotten to build a camp, so they all joined together to build one.
The army had sent barbed wire, so the Italians removed the barbs and made a running chain perimeter to attach guard dogs and as there was nowhere for the prisoners to run to, the camp wasn’t exactly high-security.
At the end of the war, Robin, who was in charge of the camp discovered a rather inconvenient fact – there were two more prisoners than on the list, which proved to be more of a problem than if there had been two missing.
When Felice Benuzzi and his friends walked out, having made ropes and crampons over a period of months, no one chased them. In fact, no one had noticed they were gone until they turned up at the gate after the climb.
Robin congratulated the climbers and sentenced them to 28 days solitary for escaping.
Now, why on earth the movie producers and writers felt that they had to concoct a ridiculous side-story about climbing and love rivals, I just don’t know.
As the author of ‘No picnic on Mount Kenya’ died in 1988, this meant that they obviously felt they had a free licence to do what they wanted with the story.
I first saw this film on the Hallmark Channel in 1998 and then it is also shown from time to time on Channel Five in the UK. It starred Ben Cross as the bitter camp commander and Vincent Spano. Ben Cross’s performance couldn’t have been further from the truth. Robin, a genial practical joke loving Welshman, hadn’t met his wife at that time. He had no interest in mountaineering, claiming that only a free bottle of Gordon’s Gin placed at the summit would have tempted him up there.

Robin did meet and marry his wife in Mombasa and she outranked him, making him salute her before allowing him to kiss her.
It wouldn’t have been a huge amount of effort to trace the history of the prisoner-of-war camp at Nyerie.
Still, it does provide us with a good excuse to shout at the television and there’s not many people who can claim that their family members had been the subject of a film. It’s just a shame that the film was so awful.

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3 Responses to Righting a wrong, the movie ‘The Ascent’ and just what did the screenwriter David Wiltse think he was doing?

  1. WM1 says:

    I’m an Italian writer and I’m currently working on a non-fiction book encompassing a narrative biography of the late Felice Benuzzi. I’ve been researching the subject for quite some time, collecting many of Benuzzi’s writings, interviewing his widow Stefania as well as several people who knew him and climbed/travelled with him.
    (BTW, I agree with you that the film is very bad, Benuzzi would have been flabbergasted at such a misrepresentation, as Mrs Benuzzi actually was)
    I just found this post where you say that the camp’s commander was (or would be, had he lived enough) your father-in-law. Of course, I find this info very interesting, I would like to know more about the man, what he did after being at the Nanyuki camp, what memories he did share and if he left something written about his experience during the war. I understand he talked about that famous escape.
    Well, you have my e-mail address, as it is required when leaving a comment here. I would really appreciate if you contacted me, so I can ask you (and your wife?) a few questions.
    Thanks for your attention. My best regards.

    • jayblewes says:

      Hi there,
      We’re just putting together an email for you – unfortunately the Camp Commander died in 1963 and there’s no paperwork left, but he did pass on his memories, which we’ll send to you this week.
      I’m glad you are doing something to correct this – it’s time that the film was exposed as fantasy and only very loosely based upon the real story.
      It’s my husband’s father who was the commander. He had a great deal of respect for Benuzzi’s achievement.
      kind regards

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