Receiving it’s world premier at the 57th BFI London Film Festival, this beautifully rendered restoration of Captain John Noel’s seminal documentary Epic of Everest is a truly awe-inspiring insight into George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s expedition to reach ‘the top of the world’.
The infamous 1924 expedition of Mallory and Irvine is a story that remains shrouded in mystery. Culminating in the death of both climbers (as well as numerous others involved in this treacherous hike) the voyage still provokes debate amongst historians and mountaineers regarding whether or not the pair managed to reach Everest’s summit. Undertaken during the heyday of the exploration yarn, when audience’s thirst for adventure was reflected in the popularity of the anthropological documentary, Captain Noel (a heroic pioneer in his own right) decided to accompany Mallory and Irvine on their perilous journey. Filming every aspect of their heroic endeavour, Noel managed to capture the exploits of the mountaineers as well as a myriad of spellbinding images of the local wildlife and culture of the surrounding Tibetan region (an area very much closed to foreign visitors at the time). Filmed during a period when the world still felt vast and impenetrable Noel’s footage contained the first images ever committed to celluloid of both Everest and Tibet – immortalising the frenetic hunger for discover that enraptured filmmakers and audiences at the time. Indeed, to this day Epic of Everest remains an endearing monument to the empirical ideology and insatiable hunger for knowledge of the era.
By shrouding contemporary viewers in a haze of revived nostalgia, Epic of Everest evokes a comparable sense of the wonder experience by those who originally witnessed this cinematic marvel – recreating the astonishment and awe instilled on an audience still governed by the politics of empire. An infectious degree of innocence and adventure eventually surrenders to the film’s subsequent atmosphere of fragility and vulnerability. By giving the mountain a platform in which to flaunt its dominance, Noel allows the malevolence of nature and mortality of humanity to quell his sanguine celebration of exploration. Fashioning a window into one of nature’s harshest landscapes, Epic of Everest, (much like 2011’s restoration of Herbet G. Ponting’s phenomenal The Great White Silence (1924)) presents us with a breathtaking portrait of one of Earth’s fiercest milieus. This sense of vulnerability leaves us questioning our own significance and awakening our slumbering soul to the chilling realisation that, despite the devastating punch delivered to the environment by pollution and global warming, there’s likely to be only one victor in the final battle between man and nature.
Noel’s application of soft tinting (laboriously recreated in this new restoration) and circular framing adds an eerily dystopian feel to proceedings. Like observing the surface of a barren, godless planet (not dissimilar to the tawdry sets of many 1970’s Sci-Fi films) Noel transforms the treacherous Himalayan steppes into an Alien terrain full of mystery and peril. “An area that had never before suffered the feet of men” Noel’s inquisitive and often foolhardy gaze captures the unexpected beauty of this barren terrain whilst his fascination with the Tibetan folklores of the mountain adds a mythical aura to this enchanting experience. Painting Everest as an angry giant and paying dutiful respect to the Tibetan belief that the mountain is the palace of the ‘Goddess of inexhaustible giving’, the film’s most astonishing scenes are undoubtedly during the expedition’s pre-accent visit to the Rongbuk Monastery – the highest religious concave in the world and the final trace of civilisation before we approach Everest’s imposing steeps.
A spellbinding tale about the limit of human endurance and the savagery of mother nature, this enduring paean to the human spirit not only represents a key moment in history, it also remains a monument to the spirit of adventure – in all its ill-fated optimism.