Exploring the world through global cinema

The Coming Of The Church Mountain

World On Film is currently on a break from its prime directive: to seek out episodes of cinema from across the globe and hopefully represent every country (a proposition you will quickly have recognised as being utterly mad). The definition of this raison d’etre is being stretched to breaking point during the respite so as to provide an excuse for other topics of personal interest, though certainly film is still the tie that binds them. This time around, we look at an example of film bringing an episode of history to life and the way it therefore provides a real immediacy to the event, even decades after the fact.

The island of Heimaey prior to 1973. The ancient volcanic cone of Helgafell stands to the right, a testament to the subterranean forces soon to be re-enacted.

Somewhere in the middle of the 1980s while I was in short pants and discovering the concept of libraries, I discovered the far-away and seemingly-unpronounceable island of Vestmannaeyjar (vest-man-ay-yar). The colourful children’s hardback, helpfully titled Volcanoes would, I hoped, promise just as much wonder and excitement about these powerful, world-shaping mountains of fire as had Felicia Law’s definitive work on the subject, also efficiently titled Volcanoes. In its namesake, a group of schoolchildren living on Vestmannaeyjar’s chief island of Heimaey were poised in the cold outdoor air to learn the complex, yet abundantly demonstrative science of volcanology. Such a school outing would be considered highly dubious at best in my home town, where the only time the ground exploded was when the local council blew up sections of a nearby hill in their quest for granite. The Icelanders however had two volcanoes on their doorstep, and one had literally exploded into existence only a few years earlier.

“The Icelanders [of Vestmannaeyjar] had two volcanoes on their doorstep, and one had literally exploded into existence only a few years earlier.”

The Fires Of Muspelheim

“We felt its hail of cinders long before we saw the volcano’s fire, glowing like a midnight sunrise through the mizzling rain.” – Noel Grove, An Island Fights For Its Life, National Geographic, July 1973.

Curtain of Fire: the initial eruption propels rock through a fissure 3km wide.

It was a cold and unexpected awakening that greeted the town of Vestmannaeyjar and its 5,000 inhabitants on the 23rd of January. At approximately 1.55 AM, the ground along the east coast literally tore itself apart barely a kilometre from the slumbering community and stretching 3 kilometres all the way down to the southern tip. Heralded by an ominous rumbling, a curtain of lava rose 150 metres into the night sky the entire length of the fissure, as though transforming Heimaey into a giant Hadean theatre awaiting the start of some hellish performance. Yet the drama was very much underway and soon, the outpouring of molten rock would confine itself to the north-east of the island, where it enveloped the farmland housing the local church. After less than a month of constant activity, the eruptions had formed a mountain 200 metres high – one that would continue to grow for the next 4 months.

Fortunately, Heimaey had seen tempestuous weather conditions in the days leading up to the eruption and all of the town’s fishing boats were moored in the harbor, ready for use. The population was therefore able to be swiftly relocated to the Icelandic mainland – primarily Reykjavik – where they would stay for the next several months as the volcano unleashed its fury upon their home. Some 200 locals would stay on to fight the sea of ash threatening to crush every household by its sheer weight, and, in the months to come, literally stop the flow of lava from destroying the harbour. With their whole industry based on fishing (in turn accounting for approximately 10% of the national total), the idea of letting nature take its course was never seriously debated. However, their battle would not be won easily.

Houses are swiftly buried by ash as the cinder cone rises above the town.

“Heralded by an ominous rumbling, a curtain of lava rose 150 metres into the night sky the entire length of the fissure, as though transforming Heimaey into a giant Hadean theatre awaiting the start of some hellish performance.”

Ash-covered houses with views of nearby Bjarnarey Island (above) lose their eye on the neighbours to an encroaching lava field (below) mere months later.

As the eruption continued, the geography of the island would be substantially altered, firstly by having its total size increased by 2.24 km², but more crucially, by nearly closing off the all-important harbour entrance. This, more than anything else, would signal the death of the settlement if it were not stopped, and with every passing day, the ever-expanding lava field to the north threatened to close the gap between the mainland and the long peninsula to the north that sheltered the port from extremes of weather. The danger to the town also increased dramatically a month into the eruption when the entire north flank of the volcano collapsed under its own weight. A seemingly never-ending ocean of lava now poured unchecked by even the mountain itself toward the town, accelerating the growth of the lava field, intent on closing the harbour forever.

With both the crucial waterway and the settlement itself directly under threat, contingency plans were needed fast. Early ideas included cutting through the lowest point of the peninsula, effectively creating a new harbour, and bombing the crater. The former would be dismissed as too cumbersome while the later was determined to be likely as dangerous to the town as the river of fire itself. It would eventually be agronomist and fellow rescue worker Páll Zóphóníasson who proposed stopping the lava flow with seawater. With the help of pumping equipment already installed in the larger sea vessels, the islanders quickly began aiming their hoses at the encroaching mass. The process of nature was duly halted, with the gap no more than 100 meters and a massive lava flow having crushed half the town as well as destroying several fishing factories. Under the impact of the sprayed seawater, the edges of the lava flows became towering walls of solid rock, while the still-flowing rivers of fire behind were diverted away from the town.

“A seemingly never-ending ocean of lava now poured unchecked by even the mountain itself toward the town, accelerating the growth of the lava field, intent on closing the harbour forever.”

A nation's economy endangered as Heimaey harbour is nearly closed by lava.

Their livelihoods saved, the inhabitants of Heimaey were significantly less concerned about the massive devastation that lay in wait for them upon their return to the island. That same destructive coating of ash could after all be harvested to dramatically improve the local runway as well as provide solid foundations for new housing. The tempered volcano meanwhile would provide free geothermal energy for most of the decade – though initially, the sulphurous gases slowly escaping from the drying rock would render the atmosphere toxic, with one fireman rescuer asphyxiating in a cellar and becoming the eruption’s only victim.

By early July, the mountain, initially dubbed ‘Kirkjufell’ for standing where the church had months earlier, now officially known as ‘Eldfell’ (Fire Mountain), had ceased eruptions and towered some 220 metres above the landscape, its neighbour: the ancient cone of Helgafell, which had dominated the island’s fate when it exploded into being some 5,000 years earlier. 12 kilometres to the south-west, the island of Surtsey stood quietly in the half-mist – only 10 years earlier having risen angrily out of the water to frustrate the cartographers by becoming the nation’s southernmost point of land. Over the next year, the townspeople returned, and set about the task of clearing away the ash from the home they would rebuild.

“Over the next year, the townspeople returned, and set about the task of clearing away the ash from the home they would rebuild.”

On Film

Turning back the tide: islanders spray seawater onto the lava flow to save their town.

Several short films captured the latest chapter in the Vestmannaeyjar saga back in the 1970s. The Heimaey Eruption, from which the images you see here are taken, is one such example. Written and produced in 1974 by Alan V. Morgan, it gives a good account of the unfolding drama, thanks to some excellent footage. Viewers are given a brief overview of Iceland’s volcanism and the forces that are literally pulling it apart, before the action travels to Heimaey, where Eldfell is slowly flattening the town. Two other films if you can find them are Day Of Destruction, produced by Kvikmyndagerðin Hljóð og mynd, and Fire On Heimaey, produced by VÓK-Film hf (both in colour and having English narration).

Someone has posted The Heimaey Eruption to youtube, so never mind my rambling waffle – take a look for yourself:

Further Viewing

Gerhard Skrobek and Hermann Luschner produced some spectacular film of the eruption and its impact on both the town and the rescue workers. Having now made its way on to (where else?) youtube, you can view it here:

And here:

Further reading: July 1973's edition of National Geographic covers the story.

Thanks to the work of Morgan, Skrobek, Luschner and others, we have the story of Eldfell immortalized in sound and motion, providing that immediacy so important 37 years later when it all seems so distant and unreal: perhaps not to the people of Iceland, used to one of the most dynamic and rapidly-changing landscapes on Earth. How amazing it would have been to have actually seen footage of the Tambora eruption of 1816 or indeed Krakatoa in 1883 – two eruptions that changed the world forever. How incredible then to actually be able to see the birth of Eldfell in 1973 and the indomitable spirit of the townspeople, who refused to let a volcano change their lifestyle. A child’s library book and its wonderfully vivid photographs would etch Vestmannaeyjar into my memory forevermore, but The Heimaey Eruption took me there, if only for 30 minutes.

“How amazing it would have been to have actually seen footage of the Tambora eruption of 1816 or indeed Krakatoa in 1883 – two eruptions that changed the world forever.”

*****

Still To Come On World On Film

Explorations into topics in and around the concept of film and the world it brings into your living room and the main series of reviews taking us to countries starting with ‘B’ begins with a tale of repressed sexuality, inner torment and discrimination in the Bahaman drama Float. All this and more in the upcoming weeks when World On Film continues.

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