Did we like it?
Rather than the gelatinous balloon of sloshing testosterone that we expected to come galloping over the televisual horizon towards us, we were pleasantly surprised by a respectful, thoughtful documentary in which the actual fighting bit is only used to frame a fascinating insight into obscure, but violent tribal rituals.
What was good about it?
• The source of our unfounded prejudice had been the nature of the six contestants, who we had read were ‘extreme sports fanatics’. Great, we thought, a bunch of lank-haired snowboarding self-publicists who use the word ‘cool’ as both a comma and a compliment and address everyone as ‘dude’ whether they be a similarly mentally-inebriated vermin or a tribal chief from the deepest Amazon. Thankfully, they were none of these things.
• This was refreshing as this had the dual benefit of not only that you could genuinely root for the athlete as they engaged in an alien sport, but as their egos didn’t tiresomely gallivant across the screen every five minutes the episode could instead concentrate on the eternally more fascinating Amazonian tribe.
• The most likeable of the athletes was Richard, who on first impressions may have resembled Little Lord Fauntleroy Goes to Oxford University (in reality he was probably richer), but who impressed us with his desire to succeed despite being physically smaller than his peers. In his fight at the Festival of Death, we really wanted to see him victorious but in an effort to avoid being thrown he span on to his back and therefore lost the contest.
• Rajko also came across well despite a dubious start in which he was described as a ‘fitness guru’, a description that brings to mind the bloke down the gym who charges the company’s director’s fat wife a fortune while she sweats like a pig in the aerobics suite. In his bout at the Festival of Death he tore into his opponent, but was eventually undone by greater guile.
• Tree surgeon Jason dispelled that flaccid stereotype about insular Americans with his remark “I want to experience the world and different cultures”. He was also very appreciative of the wood cutting skills of the tribe, saying that their skill was greater than anything he’d seen before even though they were using fairly primitive axes.
• And Jason’s attitude was typical of the athletes. While they were there to win (something they never tired of telling you), they were also there genuinely to experience a completely different way of life. Perhaps the most joyous moment came when Jason, who hadn’t been selected by the chief to fight in the Festival of Death, was exiled along with Corey and Mark to catch fish downriver with the rest of the tribe.
• Rather than sulk, Jason marvelled in the ancient technique of chopping open a tree root that was toxic to the fish and “made them drunk”. The result was seeing hundreds of fish leaping from the water over the ensnaring nets and into the waiting hands of the tribespeople.
• The most heartening element was that the athletes got absolutely battered in the wrestling bouts. This wasn’t anything against the athletes, it’s just that it would be dispiriting to see a bunch of beefed up Westerners march into a primitive village and uproot and defile their institutions in a matter of days with their modern training before stomping out again. Power athlete Brad looked like a rhino in human skin, but he was still outwitted by a squat naked man who may have been physically weaker but who did have eight years’ experience to draw on.
• The initiation ceremony for Richard, Brad and Rajko to become members of the tribe prior to their appearance in the Festival of Death involved cocoanut shells studded with piranha teeth being dragged across their arms and legs before the open wounds were treated with a stinging concoction of peppers and salt. Each managed to endure the ordeal without screaming in agony, which would have meant they wouldn’t be admitted to the tribe.
• The spectacle of all the neighbouring tribes congregating in one area to celebrate the Festival of Death, and the touching scenes of mourning and grief as recently lost loved ones were lamented as they ascend to the afterlife.
• In the Festival of Death, Brad, Richard and Rajko all lost their bouts but Brad was given another chance after his opponent threw sand in his face. In his rematch he secured a draw, meaning he was ‘the last man standing’ and so won this leg of the challenge. However, such was the absorbing nature of the tribal ritual that you didn’t really care about such secular concerns and were still marvelling at the whole spectacle.
What was bad about it?
• Richard Hammond’s slightly smarmy ‘I’m here comfortable in a TV studio’ narration which served to divorce you from the travails of the athletes rather than choke you with the intimacy of it all.
• The narration often overstated just how unique the athletes’ task was or how estranged from civilisation they were. On more than a few occasions, Hammond breathlessly spoke of how Brad, Richard and Rajko would be the first Westerners ever to duel in the Festival of Death, when we can’t imagine there had been too many people who had even tried previously. And he also remarked how “in 10 days’ time they’ll be fighting for their lives”, which was a greasy exaggeration as aside from Corey’s awkward fall the most pain they suffered was the initiation ceremony into the tribe.
• While Hammond seemed to suffer from a verbal tic which compelled him to mention every five minutes just how isolated the tribe were from the athletes’ idea of home. But they weren’t so secluded that they agreed to have a BBC film crew stomp over their territory for a couple of weeks.
• For the most part, the athletes embraced their new way of life except for the odd moment such as when Corey bleated, after a bit of rough and tumble: “It just seemed unnecessary. I could have been paralysed; neck injury, back injury. That was dangerous.” And Brad’s comical discomfort when the tribe’s shaman sucked his stomach to remove an evil spirit caused him to grimace and express his annoyance.