The official record of Britain’s 1924 Everest expedition, and Mallory and Irvine’s summit attempt.
To the explorer, an intertitle card tell us, Everest is “the last of the world’s great lodestones of romance and adventure.” The Epic of Everest was filmed in 1924, nearly 30 years before the mountain was finally conquered, but it’s still true today – despite over 4,000 people having reached the top, and more than 300 dying in the attempt.
Rising 29,029 feet above sea level, the mountain we know as Everest was named after British Surveyor General Of India, Sir George Everest, though he neither approved of this, nor pronounced his name Ever-est. To the Tibetans, it is Chomolungma, or Goddess Mother of the World.
Back in 1924 The Epic Of Everest was a window into the Tibet of the time (Nepal did not allow Westerners entry); now it is a window onto the past for us, as wives of nomadic shepherds churn butter in large tents, and men in tweed and leather boots smoke pipes and work on typewriters in the chilly sunshine.
They’re identical in their self-consciousness when looking at the camera, and Captain John Noel’s extraordinary silent film is more than just a visual diary of events.
His cameras are also part of the story, as he expanded the boundaries of where it was possible to film. And when it becomes too inhospitable even for his equipment, he, and we, remain just above their 23,000 Ice Cliff Camp, his high powered lenses photographing climbers three miles away. The mystery of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s disappearance adds a layer of poignancy, as men trudge on beyond where technology can go.
They are all walking into the unknown but we also know some of them won’t walk out again. Thrill and wonder are tempered with foreboding and sadness, even after nearly a century. It isn’t the first movie where everyone watching already knows the outcome; but I can’t be alone viewing it with a yearning to undo time just this once, despite hundreds of climbers dying on the mountain since. The familiar image of Mallory, in his tweed suit and tousled hair, adds to the bravery and romance of the plucky amateur.
It’s easy to get carried away and forget how skilled a climber Mallory was though, and watching this brings home their planning, professionalism and technical expertise. The 22-year-old Irvine was extremely adept at fixing issues with bottled oxygen; after Mallory’s body was found in 1999, mountaineer Graham Hoyland, himself the great nephew of expedition member Howard Somervell, tested climbing clothes based exactly on what Mallory was wearing for the summit attempt and found them comfortable and highly effective for the terrain.
Okay that’s slightly off-topic; I’m meant to be reviewing The Epic of Everest not The Gloriousness of Gabardine or the Heroism of Hobnailed Boots, but I’ll freely admit that this is yet another “rabbit hole” film where I spend days after watching it googling facts both major and minor (see also Titanic, and any films about Bigfoot).
Noel knows exactly what he’s doing, offering up to us a world part moonscape and part sparkling grotto, reinforced with intertitle cards (the restored originals) that mingle awe at the natural world with science, man’s bravery and talk of goblins and fairyland.
Everest looks both timeless and slightly surreal, with dark red and magenta skies, blue-tinged frozen caverns, and snow that has the sheen of a just-iced Christmas cake. The mountain is impassive but the speeded up film (pre-sound, films were shot at a lower frame rate) means clouds whizz around its peak, both emphasising its impassivity and later making it seem like a giant waking from sleep.
We watch The Epic Of Everest through a cultural lens too. Noel comes across as a director desperate not to leave anything out, and rather distracted by what he finds. The first half is travelogue, the second the men taking on the mountain. What it lacks is a window into the climbers’ thoughts and feelings; we never get to know anything about these pioneers as individuals.
They stop in the highest town in the world, Phari-Dzong, 200 miles from the mountain – smiling villagers pose for the camera, while kids, cattle and dogs amble the stony lanes between houses.
There’s plenty of detail: “the Tibetan lady of better class will wear a coral ornamented fillet, closely binding her madonna-parted hair, the fluffed out braids falling over her shoulders”. Noel also has a good eye for the small-scale story that will tug the heartstrings, as a baby donkey, born en route, is carried across a river.
There’s a familiar whiff of condescension towards local people, there to be appraised (they’re strongly criticised for their grubbiness, their homes are “hovels” and a beggar is deemed the jolliest of the lot), though there’s also fascination and admiration: mothers rubbing their children with butter “to prepare them for the winter winds”, the bravery and determination of the Sherpas establishing the camps.
The tension running through the film is as much between the scientific and the spiritual as between man and nature. They ask for a blessing from the Rongbuk Lama, which they are given along with an assessment that they will fail. Their expedition has the feel of a war of attrition; that the most they can hope for, and indeed what they seek, is that Chomolungma’s power can at least be temporarily subdued.
It’s an enormous undertaking as a vast moving caravan of yaks and people, strapped with wooden boxes, leaves the town. 60 Nepalese Sherpas will carry the loads up the mountain and establish the camps, which are given names that belie the reality of a few huddled canvas tents, blowing in the wind: Frozen Lake Camp, Snowfields, Ice Cliff Camp.
The ice chimney must be strung with ladders, snow fields crossed with ropes. Climbers break off dagger-like stalactites of ice as they travel through sparkling grottos.
There is plenty of human drama before Mallory and Irvine begin their summit attempt. Exposure proves fatal for two Sherpas; bad weather maroons more high up at Ice Cliff Camp necessitating a successful rescue by Norton, Mallory and Somervell. Expedition leader Norton is later stricken with snow-blindness after his own summit attempt, and has to be piggybacked to camp by a Sherpa.
Simon Fisher Turner’s score (written for the 2013 restoration and re-release) builds and leads through the 80 minutes; from a lonely, soulful poignancy it then rumbles and shrieks, crescendos of wind and grumbling thunder.
When George Mallory and Sandy Irvine make their summit bid, Odell is the last to see them, at, he thinks, 600 feet beneath the summit: “still climbing and then ––– no more”.
The Epic of Everest is available from several retailers including:
The Epic Of Everest was restored in 2013 by the BFI National Archive. Find out more about the restoration here.
There’s also a short film about the scoring of the film which you can watch for free on the BFI Player.
Also worth a look is this article about Sibusiso Vilane, the first Black person to summit Everest (in 2003).
Watch the trailer: