As of 2013, 3,500 people have reached the summit of Mount Everest. In 1924, that figure stood at zero. Which means that when George Mallory, Andrew Irvine, their fellow explorers, their many Sherpa porters and film-maker Captain John Noel took their first steps on the ascent, the world’s tallest mountain was far taller than it is today.
The Epic of Everest, Noel’s film of that ill-fated expedition, captures the mountain at its most mysterious – and its most alluring. A massive success when it was shown back home in London at the Scala, The Epic of Everest may well have been responsible for many a traveller’s resolve to climb the unclimbable mountain. While Noel’s film praises the “supermen” of the expedition, their heroics pale in comparison with the majesty of the landscape that defeats them and claims four of their lives. The explorers, tiny black silhouettes against the sheets of snow and ice that surround them, are noble fools at best – Everest is king. The intertitles, smug in colonial superiority, condescend to the Tibetan locals at first, detailing their quaint customs, expressing horror at their hygiene standards. By the end of the movie, that same voice is rueful, fearing that the mountain has actually been cursed, or rather protected, by the lamas – that the summit the locals call Chomolungma or “Goddess Mother of the World” is never to be claimed by an interloper.
Despite its grand conclusions, The Epic of Everest doesn’t feel as epic as you might expect. The poignancy here is that the expedition is over, and so finally, terribly over, so soon after it began. Two of the team die of frostbite and exposure at an early base camp when the weather changes. 37-year-old George Mallory and 22-year-old Andrew Irvine die on or near the summit. They are spied by Noel’s new-fangled telephoto lens beginning the final push, and by a colleague’s telescope just 800ft from the top. Were they on their way, or down? With no bodies recovered and the rest of the expedition making the sorrowful descent without them, it matters little.
Despite the lengthy intertitles and the meticulous detail of altitudes and temperatures, it’s actually easier to watch this as an art film as opposed to a documentary. This movie is all about the awe-inspiring visuals, mist rolling off the mountain top, glaciers twinkling in the evening light – and the crowning glory is the blue-tinted Fairyland of Ice sequence. Everest almost-pristine, with our hardy faithful tiptoeing around doing some genuine, light-touch exploring, snapping off icicles and dwarfed by the glaciers. The BFI restoration, combining the best shots from the two best prints in its archive, replicating the tints straight from the nitrate originals, plays right up to that gorgeousness. Feast your eyes, even as you weep.
The finishing touch is one that you may expect to find a little familiar. Simon Fisher Turner’s score for The Great White Silence combined unexpected noises, a beautiful hymn, dark electronica and some surprising archival found sounds to create an unforgettable, not to say controversial, soundtrack. His score for The Epic of Everest is just as richly textured, but more melodic and with fewer attention-grabbing tricks. Motorcycles, typewriters and some original recordings from 1924 – of lamas at that London premiere – are plaited neatly into the music. Where the film can be cool, almost brutal in its straightforwardness, the music supplies drama, sentiment, and a note of pizzazz.
The Epic of Everest will have world premiere as the Archive Gala at the 57th BFI London Film Festival on 18 October 2013 with Simon Fisher Turner’s score performed live. It will go on simultaneous theatrical release and in time, will be released on Blu-Ray by the BFI. Read more here.
UPDATE: This review followed a press showing in the BFI basement screening room. I subsequently saw The Epic of Everest at a London Film Festival press screening in NFT1 at BFI Southbank – with a much bigger screen, and louder speakers, the film was even more magnificent. The score, particularly, made much more of an impression the second time around. So my advice is: see this film on the biggest, best screen you can.