Director: Captain John Noel
Cast: George Mallory, Andrew Irvine
Watch The Epic of Everest online: BFI Player
In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine attempted to climb Mount Everest. Even more incredible than that, someone was there to capture it on camera. Restored by the BFI and released in cinemas and on video on-demand simultaneously today, Captain John Noel’s account of the expedition is breathtaking stuff: an astonishing record of an astonishing feat. As the film puts it, it’s a document of man’s “bold struggle to reach the TOP OF THE WORLD”.
To call The Epic of Everest a documentary, though, is perhaps misleading. It’s closer to an art installation. Timelapse photography of clouds and shadows are as stunning as anything by David Attenborough’s team today, but the BFI’s new version turns them into something from a higher plane.
The title cards – of which there are many – describe Irvine and Mallory’s journey as a voyage “into a fairyland of ice”. Noel’s visuals more than live up to it. Lovingly brought back to their original form, the great white silence of the Himalayas is a vivid smorgasbord of colour: red peaks, blue snow, grey air.
The ethereal tints and hues are given even more of an otherworldly feel by Simon Fisher Turner’s new music. The score, which combines found sounds with Tibetan horns and Yak bells, presents Everest as a place of natural tranquility – disrupted by the electronic presence of man. Recordings of lamas from the film’s original 1924 premiere in London add to the period atmosphere, especially when accompanied by Noel’s condescending, colonial attitude towards Tibetan locals.
The villagers look at the camera with bemusement or happy surprise, as the Brits prepare to face the inhospitable welcome of the mountain. When they climb higher, the noises fade out to be replaced by breathing, getting louder and louder. At this point, we begin to realise just how much awe the movie has, not just for its intrepid explorers but the thing they are trying to conquer.
As Irvine and Mallory disappear from sight at the very top, their fate shrouded in mystery, the scale of nature on display is jaw-dropping. Filmed from two miles away, these are some of the first long-range telephoto shots ever put on celluloid. The fact that they were taken 26,000 feet up in the air is staggering.
The mount, we are informed by the reverent Noel, is known as “Chomolungma”, meaning “Goddess Mother of the Mountains”. An eye-opening, landmark triumph of human ambition, The Epic of Everest worships her with a terrifying inevitability.
The Epic of Everest premieres tonight as the Archive Gala screening at the London Film Festival. Thanks to the BFI Player, the BFI’s new video on-demand service, you can worship her too from the comfort of your own home.
For more information, visit http://player.bfi.org.uk/ – or read our BFI Player guide.