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The Epic of Everest
IMDB Rating: 7.9/10 from 186 votes
Release: 1924 (UK) /

The Epic of Everest

Genre: Documentary
Director: J.B.L. Noel,
Stars: ,
Synopsis: The official record of Mallory and Irvine's 1924 expedition. When George Mallory and Sandy Irvine attempted to reach the summit of Everest in 1924 they came closer than any previous attempt. Inspired by the work of Herbert Ponting (The Great White Silence) Captain Noel filmed in the harshest of conditions, with specially adapted equipment, to capture the drama of the fateful expedition. Written by BFI

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Critic Reviews

It was interesting to see this film immediately after Captain Noel's first Everest documentary, the optimistically-entitled "Climbing Mount Everest" covering the 1922 attempt on the mountain. The degree of public interest in the earlier film had prompted Noel into the venture of buying the commercial rights to the film of this new expedition outright, raising the amazing sum of eight thousand pounds in advance; effectively, "The Epic of Everest" financed the 1924 summit bid.

The difference between the two approaches to the same subject is notable. This film runs half an hour longer than its predecessor, but if anything feels shorter: it is constructed as an artistic whole, whereas the first attempt relies much more on the sheer novelty of its subject matter -- both Tibet and the mountain were being filmed for the first time ever -- and in consequence has a certain random "what I did on my holidays" feel to it. On the other hand, it's certainly worth seeing as a companion piece, not least because it explains some of the background detail that appears in "The Epic of Everest": the prayer wheel that we see here, for example, which is otherwise implied to be a musical instrument of some kind. And at least one shot (of Tibetans dancing) has clearly been inserted directly into this film from the 1922 version!

For the "Epic of Everest" Noel makes an attempt to create human interest, introducing individuals and showing us clips of Somervell sketching, Geoffrey Bruce at the typewriter, and Sandy Irvine swinging a thermometer(?): the tale of a newborn donkey provides another minor strand. To modern eyes I think the film would have benefited from more such material, especially given the practical difficulties of filming actual mountaineering (almost all the climbing footage had to be shot via telephoto lens at extreme long range) and the requirement for the photographic party to wait around in camp below to learn the results of each fresh summit bid: shots of camp life on a more human level would have helped bring the realities of the expedition home. As it is, we get little beyond a couple of scenes of the expedition members gathered at table in the open air, and learn nothing of, for example, the relay system of runners that dispatched Noel's precious negatives all the way back to Darjeeling for developing. An even more puzzling omission is the absence in this film of any coverage of the oxygen system eventually used by Mallory, a precursor of which is seen on Finch and Bruce in the 1922 footage.

And because -- presumably -- it was impossible to film in anything other than the most perfect of conditions, we get very little idea of the savagery of Everest's weather, which constantly frustrated the climbers' attempts. Only the billowing of the little Meade tents on the North Col gives any hint as to the conditions that entrapped four porters (and almost exhausted both Mallory and Somervell in a rescue expedition before ever they could make their respective bids for the summit).

But this film is conceived on a more elevated level, with sweeping tinted shots of the mountain and its approaches, the vast bulk of the north-eastern ridge above the cameraman, and the vertical precipices that await the climber who slips. To those familiar with the still photographs of the expedition, perhaps the greatest magic is to see those familiar scenes come alive: to see porters on Irvine's famous tent-peg rope ladder, to see climbers turn and grin at the camera, to see Norton and Somervell's stumbling, blind return from 28,000ft. Perhaps most memorable (and rightly selected by the BFI for their trailer) are those shots of the Himalayan sunset creeping across the folds of the mountain and finally extinguishing the highest peak: both art and metaphor.

In an similarly elevated tone are the intertitles -- although by the standards of silent drama/action films it can be very intertitle-heavy. If only the voice-over had existed for documentaries in 1924...

I was sceptical about the idea of the modern score composed for the film's re-release, but in fact I found that it worked very well. The use of 'found sounds' and natural noise goes some way to substitute for the lack of soundtrack, introducing heavy breathing and harsh winds to restore some idea of the sheer labour involved in those little black dots moving over pristine white, and providing ambient sounds for a Tibetan yak herd or Darjeeling bazaar, while it includes Captain Noel's own recordings of the Tibetan lamas who performed at the film's original London premiere.

Inevitably "The Epic of Everest" is constrained by the technical challenges of filming under extreme conditions -- I wondered also if the relative lack of human-interest footage was dictated by a limited supply of film stock -- and while Captain Noel greatly admired Herbert Ponting's pre-WW1 Antarctic achievements, despite technical advances I'm not sure he reaches the same artistic heights. Ponting's "The Great White Silence" is another film that began as a documentary and had to be re-edited into a memorial to a Great British Failure, and as such is an obvious point of comparison: but it contains some shots of truly jaw-dropping beauty. With the difficulties of altitude and long distance added to that of intense cold, the interest of Noel's film lies to a greater extent in its record of a historic event. I like this score better, though!

For anyone with an interest in the 1920s Everest expeditions it is certainly worth going to see "The Epic of Everest" during its general release; for the more curious, "Climbing Mount Everest" is also available to watch in person via the BFI's Mediatheque screens at various locations around the country.

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