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Feature Friday: “Richard Feynman, The Last Journey of a Genius” (aka “The Quest for Tannu Tuva”) (1988)

A friend gave me a VHS copy of this after learning that Richard P. Feynman was one of my childhood heroes, and that his What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1985) was and still is one of absolute favorite books.

That book was of course “really” written by Ralph Leighton, one of Feynman’s closest friends. (He is the son of Feynman’s colleague Robert B. Leighton.) Ralph Leighton thought that Feynman’s many stories were too good not to be documented, so he recorded Feynman telling them, then wrote the book.

Later, Feynman and Leighton became obsessed with visiting the country of Tannu Tuva, a very small country between Mongolia and Russia. They formed a group to finance an expedition (“the Friends of Tuva”), and were all but ready to leave when Feynman passed away (in 1988).

This amazing film, an episode of the British series Horizon, was made right at that time. (It aired in July 1988, only five months after Feynman’s death.) There’s a scene toward the end where the director asks Leighton what will happen to the Tuva trip now, and Leighton simply breaks down; it’s heartbreaking.

The good news is that the trip eventually did happen! The wonderful documentary Genghis Blues (1999) tells how the Friends of Tuva later met a blind musician, Paul Pena, who had taught himself to throat sing; they helped finance his visit to Tuva to participate in one of the country’s throat singing competitions. (There’s even a scene in Blues where the expedition tries to summon Feynman’s spirit.)

The Quest for Tannu Tuva (1988)

Directed by Christopher Sykes

Featuring Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton

(For some reason there’s a second entry for this at the IMDb.)

Also related is Ralph Leighton’s 1991 book Tuva or Bust!


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