Saturday, February 22, 2014

[film] "Epic of Everest"

Epic of Everest is a reissue of a silent documentary film by Captain John Noel from the 1920s, with a new score by Simon Fisher Turner. It tells the story of the il-fated Mallory Everest expedition. It starts off as an anthropological jaunt through Tibet (inter-titles informing us that this is a country whose people never wash from the day they are born to the day of their death, apart from having butter rubbed into their skin when they are babies) and then becomes more serious when the climbers reach the mountain. At that point the bulky cameras of the time are less able to travel upwards and eventually have to halt their ascent and merely film the climbers from far below.

It is the mountainside sequences where the film really comes into its own. The musical soundtrack is of the unnerving variety, featuring both electronic and acoustic instruments. Its eeriness is added to by the inclusion of the uncanny sound of the whistling Himalayan wind. The inter-titles talk of legendary snow monsters and as storms descend it does seems like a malevolent presence is demanding that the climbers vacate the mountain. At one point some of the climbers were cut off in a higher camp by a sudden storm; on being rescued they reported hearing the terrifying sounds of monsters out in the snow storm. Yet George Mallory, the team leader, takes advantage of a break in the bad weather to set off for the summit with Andrew Irvine, his climbing partner. The film sees them in the far distance through a telescopic lens, a speck on the face of the mountain. And then it sees them no more. It is like the mountain came alive and took them. Mallory's body remained undiscovered until 1999; Irvine's has never been found and to this day no one knows whether they succeeded in reaching the summit of Mount Everest.

The film is a brilliant evocation of the heroic age of mountain climbing, when Everest was not overrun with tour parties and amateur climbers queuing up for their turn on the summit.

image source (BFI: with information on the film, its restoration and the new soundtrack)

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

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