(1924) Written and directed by Captain John Noel; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“To us Everest was but a mountain – a thing of rock and ice and snow. To the Tibetans she was more – she was what they named her, ‘Chomolungma,’ ‘Goddess Mother of the World.’ Now could it be possible that something more than the physical had opposed us in this battle where human strength and western science had broken and failed?” – Captain John Noel (Excerpted from closing statement)
I’m honored to take part in the Rule Britannia Blogathon, hosted by Terence Towles Canote of A Shroud of Thoughts, covering the exceptionally influential and eclectic cinematic output of the United Kingdom.
Mount Everest has long epitomized all things unattainable. Reaching its 29,032-foot crest, in the eyes of many, is tantamount to achieving an impossible goal. At the time The Epic of Everest was released, no one (or at least no one from the Western world) had successfully achieved this daunting feat. Captain John Noel, who joined the British army in northern India, specifically to document what he called “The Third Pole” (since the North and South poles had been successfully reached), set out to do just that. The Epic of Everest * chronicles Great Britain’s ill-fated third attempt to reach the peak (attempted previously in 1921 and 1922). Noel’s film covered the bulk of this arduous journey,** starting in India, and approaching the mountain from its northeast face, through Nepal. The 200-mile trek (walking roughly 12 miles per day), involved dozens of Sherpas, and a caravan of pack animals.
* Fun Fact #1: Noel documented the second attempt in his earlier 1922 film, Climbing Mount Everest. The filmmaker had to rent his own theater to exhibit the feature, due to lack of interest from distributors who felt it was missing a love interest.
** Fun Fact #2: According to Noel’s daughter, Sandra, the filmmaker took along 14 cameras so that each pair of climbers could have a small camera (with 2 minutes of footage) and a pocket camera, to capture images from their unique vantage points. Not-So-Fun side note: The cameras and exposed film that belonged to the victims are still atop Everest today (and presumably intact). What secrets about the explorers’ last moments remain locked on that lost celluloid?
Instead of concentrating on the individual personalities of the explorers, Noel chose to focus on the expedition itself, and their perilous climb. One character, however, emerges from the story, Everest itself. At one point, Noel describes the mountain with anthropomorphic terms, as an unfathomable, wrathful entity that “frowns upon us.” The gargantuan mountain dominates many of the shots as they inch closer toward their goal, its foreboding presence paradoxically beckoning and unwelcoming. Although we never get to know the explorers as individuals, there’s something uniquely human about their collective endeavors. Through a custom-made telephoto lens (built by Noel, himself), we witness the last footage of George Mallory and Sandy Irving,* two miles distant, as they make their final ascent, before vanishing. They appear as black specks against a sea of white, a somber epitaph for their endeavors.
* Not So Fun Fact: Mallory and Irving presumably died only 600 feet from their destination. Mallory’s body was discovered many decades later, albeit with questions left unanswered (Did he reach the summit or didn’t he?), but the location of Irvine’s body remains a mystery.
The BFI did a remarkable job restoring the film to its past glory, while refraining from making it appear too pristine. In an age when we’ve grown accustomed to crystal-sharp 4K images, it’s easy to look upon the scratches, pops and grain with jaded eyes. But in this case, the technical limitations are an asset. Filtered through the camera lenses of the time and equipment that would be considered primitive by modern standards, we, the audience, are privy to a secret world few of us could every fully understand. It’s a kind of magic, from the pink-tinted opening shot of Everest, to scenes of Tibetan monasteries and fortresses of Kampa Dzong and Shekar Dzong, built into towering cliffs. We feel privileged to be able to be along for the ride. We’ve seen these magnificent structures since, in color and high definition, but those images don’t compare to what’s on display here. Noel’s film makes them appear ethereal, like something out of a fantasy tale or a dream – all the better to ruminate about how these structures were carved into the rock, centuries ago. The film takes every opportunity to depict the harsh, unforgiving landscape of rock, glaciers and snow, buffeted by punishing winds and unpredictable weather. In one of the final scenes, clouds roll over craggy terrain covered in ice and snow, casting a shadow like a death shroud. The modern score by Simon Fisher Turner (commissioned for BFI’s 2013 re-release), enhances, rather than detracts from the film. Turner’s soundtrack provides a contemplative aural backdrop, matching the images beautifully, and incorporating authentic sounds from the era.
Is The Epic of Everest a tale of hubris? Man against the elements? Absolutely. But there’s much more to the story. The film portrays the explorers as interlopers in a world they scarcely understood. Rather than dismiss native superstitions, Noel considers how the Tibetan Lamas predicted they would not succeed in their quest, but they helped the team anyway (Perhaps the lamas knew that the Western explorers could only learn through their mistakes?). We’re constantly reminded of the sheer immensity of the undertaking for the benefit of a small group of privileged individuals. Considering the tremendous toll on human life and resources,* it’s not difficult to see how this expedition must have seemed pure folly, if not borderline suicidal. One aspect not adequately addressed by the movie is the risk to the lives of the many Sherpas who made the expedition possible (it fails to mention the fact that two perished). There’s a begrudging respect for the people that reside and thrive in such an inhospitable climate.
* Not So Fun Fact: To date, 305 climbers have lost their lives, attempting to scale the world’s tallest mountain. Of those 305, about 200 bodies have not been recovered, a grim reminder of the immense risks involved.
Why would anyone take such an enormous risk? For bragging rights to be the first, or simply to bask in the knowledge that they are doing something few would ever attempt? Most of us don’t have the luxury of time or money to travel around world, and even if we did, we would never be able to explore more than a fraction of all the corners of the globe. I’m aware that I’ll never climb Everest, but through documentaries such as these, I can experience the thrills and challenges vicariously. Considering the subject matter, it was a safe assumption that The Epic of Everest would be about man against nature, and the inevitable victory of our indomitable will against incalculable odds. Instead, it was something much more. It’s almost incidental that the explorers fell short of their goal to conquer Everest. The journey (physical and mental) is the thing. Noel’s meditative film is nothing short of astonishing, reminding us that our failings are just as important as our victories. There’s something ultimately comforting and humbling to know that in spite of our human arrogance and lofty aspirations, there are still things greater than us, vast and unknowable beyond our comprehension.
* Fun Fact #3: During the film’s initial release, it was originally exhibited as an immersive experience, including painted sets and a chorus of Tibetan Monks.
Sources for this article: “Introducing The Epic of Everest” 2008 featurette; “Fictitious Tales, Actual Odysseys,” by J. Hoberman, New York Times, October 11, 2015; “Captain Noel’s 1922 Conquest of Everest,” by David L. Clark, American Cinematographer, August 1990; “Our TeamClimbed Everest to Try to Solve its Greatest Mystery,” by Mark Synnott, National Geographic Magazine, July 2020