Documentary of the week: The Epic of Everest (1924)


In 1924 a group of English climbers set out for a third attempt on the highest mountain in the world. The expedition has become almost mythical in the English imagination, for the deaths of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in unknown circumstances near the top – had they reached the summit, the first men to do so, and were on their way down? – taking on added fascination with the finding of Mallory’s body just over 10 years ago. And so the story has been mythologised and contributed  hugely to the creation of the sub-genre of ‘men (and occasionally women) v mountains’ action literature, sped on its way by Mallory’s much quoted reason for his attempts on Everest – ‘Because it’s there’ . A member of the expedition, himself obsessed with Everest, was Captain John Noel, who took along a movie camera, and the BFI have just released this beautiful restoration of the film he made.

Unimaginable to carry along a camera and equipment of the size film-making would demand. Of course, almost all of it, like the rest of the gear, would be carried by Sherpas, the then little known people who provide lots of the interest of this film – apparently chirpy, strangely coiffeured people and their butter-smeared children, their monasteries, their music, are portrayed with a smidgeon of condescension but also admiration for their strength and bravery, providing what must have been at the time useful ethnographic information. Almost more ethnographically interesting are the Englishmen themselves, in their tweed jackets and thick-knit socks, as if setting off for an autumn hike in the Lakes, their pipes and scarves and tea brew-ups, and their undauntable enthusiasm in godawful conditions. A world away from the hi-tech equipment today that makes a trip up Everest attainable for anyone reasonably fit with enough money.

But it’s the mountain, it’s sheer whiteness and dream-like shapes, which at times makes this look like fanciful early sci-fi, the light and the snow moving over it and the little black human shapes against it which look quite literally ant-like, that make this a mesmerising film. As the expedition nears the summit and the camera has to stay behind and trace those dogged little figures from increasing distance, a feat proudly announced in the inter-titles as the most long-distant filming ever, the film becomes increasingly austere, as we watch first a rescue of one advance party too fatigued and frost-bitten to get back to camp themselves, then the last attempt to the very top as the two figures of Mallory and Irvine disappear into the distance and the pure white of the snow. Finally on the third day sleeping bags are laid out by the man following them, a prearranged sign to those below, dark against the white snow, ‘Give up hope’.

Heroic failure of not quite making it, or tragedy of an achievement being forever unknown …  together these conspire to give this story many resonances beyond pure documentary.  Elements of home video, exotic people and stunning landscapes combine. Add the superb soundtrack of ‘electronic music, found sounds, western and Nepalese instruments and vocals’, by Simon Fisher, giving sounds of wind, the rumbling grind of snow and rocks and profound stillnesses, and the result is unselfconsciously poetic, a truly great experience.











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