The Epic of Everest
Mount Everest is the highest mountain on Earth. A banal statement perhaps but it does sum up very neatly why the scaling of it has always been the ultimate mountaineering challenge. There may well have been attempts to scale the mountain before it was discovered by the West but the first recorded attempt was in 1921 by George Mallory and Guy Bullock but that was simply a reconnaissance mission to establish whether the climb was possible. Another stab was made a year later by George Finch but his decision to use oxygen was much derided and an accompanying expedition led by Mallory was engulfed in an avalanche.
Which brings us to The Epic of Everest, a chronicle of the third attempt on the mountain led by General Bruce and including, once again, George Mallory. On 4th June 1924, he and Andrew Irvine left base camp and began their climb using oxygen. They were observed to have reached the First Step, 8565 metres above sea level, but it is not known whether or not they successfully climbed any further. What we do know is that neither of the men was ever seen again and that, on 1st May 1999, Mallory’s body was found on the north face of the mountain. This is of course one of the great British tragedies, the kind of triumphant, plucky failure which our nation has always loved to celebrate, the spirit of which is embodied in the person of Robert Falcon Scott. Mallory and Irvine seem to have been thoroughly professional but, like Scott, they were simply not prepared for how bad things would get out there.
The film is the result of Captain John Noel’s successful bidding for the rights to make a moving pictorial record of the expedition. He was himself a seasoned explorer and veteran photographer, heavily influenced by Herbert Ponting’s record of the Scott expedition to the Antarctic. His filming of the trip was a follow-up to his record of the 1922 expedition, in itself a piece of technological wizardry involving the modification of his equipment to cope with the extraordinary filming conditions. He was the only real candidate for filming the third excursion, not least since the Everest Committee needed his money in order to help with their finances. Noel’s use of a telephoto lens enabled him to capture far-off images with a hitherto unseen detail and proved essential in the latter stages of filming. Often, the men seem like tiny insects making a painstaking ascent up an unimaginably vast wall of implacable white. The immensity of scale is humbling.
It’s easy to criticise the film. It has a certain naïve sentimentality which isn’t helped by the crashingly obvious inter-titles which spell everything out to us and could easily have been dispensed with. More damagingly, the attitudes towards the Tibetan natives that we see are, at best, paternalistic, and often downright racist to modern sensibilities – the suggestion that, for example, the natives never wash and that they live in stinking hovels. In this respect, the best that can be said is that the film is a record of a time and place and that the attitudes are very much part of that. It’s also worth saying that the fascination of the camera with the native faces tells a far more complex story than the simplistic titles.
Noel was, needless to say, not aware that his film would be the record of a tragedy but it’s this which makes it all the more beautiful and delicate. The images of the ice caps are almost tangible in their immediacy and he does the most important thing with great skill – he makes us realise that people risk their lives climbing mountains because it’s quite simply an immensely exciting thing to do. There’s a visionary obsession to his images which crosses a border from documentary into film art and it’s sometimes difficult to entirely process that we’re watching reality and not a carefully staged fantasy. The snow seems somehow too perfect a bed of white powder, the footprints too perfectly aligned. But it’s all real.
This Blu-Ray presentation of Captain John Noel’s film is the product of a lot of hard work undertaken by the BFI. They worked from two copies; a nitrate projection print and an incomplete positive, the two being compared to produce the best results for each shot. The results are astonishingly good considering the state of the two versions – damage, mould and decomposition were all hurdles to be negotiated by the restorers. Throughout, the images are stunning in their awesome beauty, the context in itself making the sometimes obvious damage less than irrelevant – this film is, let us remember, ninety years old. The black and white vistas are gorgeous in themselves but the tinting, guided by the projection print, is an additional pleasure. Detail is surprisingly impressive as well, particularly in the scenes shot in Phari-Dzong where the decidedly paternalistic fascination with the natives leads to some lingering views of their features. I don’t think anyone could be remotely disappointed with the visual quality of this disc.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, will divide viewers. Simon Fisher Turner’s new score for the film, presented in both 5.1 and 2.0, is based on, according to the booklet, “a recurring group of complementary sounds… offering a sonic re-imagining of the emotional highs and lows of the Everest expedition.” It’s certainly distinctive and sometimes effective although I found the repetition a little tiresome and I’m not personally keen on this kind of clash between modern and vintage material. I had the same problem with Fisher Turner’s score for The Great White Silence so maybe his music is simply not to my taste. More to my liking is the recreation of the original 1924 orchestral score which is very much in the grand romantic manner with more than a slight debt to Mahler. The sound quality on all the tracks is excellent.
Although the extra features are brief, they contain a considerable amount of information - especially when taken with the detailed essays contained in the typically engrossing booklet. Introducing The Epic of Everest contains contributions from BFI archivist Bryony Dixon and Sandra Noel, the director’s daughter. The latter is a characterful speaker and well worth listening to. Restoring The Epic of Everest explains how the restoration process was undertaken and it’s fascinating, quite apart from anything else, to get a glimpse inside the National Film Archive. Scoring The Epic of Everest is an interview with Simon Fisher Turner which is valuable in terms of finding out exactly what he was trying to do. His score, whether or not one likes it, is worthy of considerable respect and I have to admit to not quite realising how painstaking his working method is. We also get some additional pieces of music which were part of the first cinema presentation in 1924. The most fascinating of these is a recording of Tibetan lamas and monks who performed live before the film was shown at the Scala Theatre.
The Epic of Everest should have broad appeal to anyone who with an interest in silent cinema or, indeed, anyone with a fascination for a gripping and vividly captured piece of history. It makes a fine companion piece to The Great White Silence and certainly demonstrates the BFI’s admirable commitment to all kinds of British cinema. The Blu-Ray is an exceptional presentation and very highly recommended.