The Epic of Everest
The official record of Mallory and Irvine's 1924 expedition. When George Mallory and Sandy Irvine attempted to reach the summit of Everest in 1924 they came closer than any previous attempt. Inspired by the work of Herbert Ponting (The Great White Silence) Captain Noel filmed in the harshest of conditions, with specially adapted equipment, to capture the drama of the fateful expedition.
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★★★★★ review by Adam G on Letterboxd
First screened as the Archive strand Gala feature at the 2013 London Film Festival, Captain John Noel’s ‘The Epic of Everest’, the official record of Mallory and Irvine’s 1924 Everest expedition, proves an enthralling combination of breathtaking imagery, adventure, spirituality, human sacrifice and incredible technical proficiency, captured as it was on a specially adapted camera in extremely harsh conditions. Now, beautifully restored by the BFI – in collaboration with the director’s daughter Sandra Noel – John Noel’s extraordinary achievement remains one of the most remarkable and significant historical documents in the entire BFI National Archive.
Having served as the official photographer and filmmaker for the 1922 British Mount Everest expedition – the first mountaineering expedition with the central aim of making the first ascent of Mount Everest (and notably the first expedition that attempted to climb Everest using bottled oxygen) - Noel then went on to form a private production company, which paid for the entire photographic rights (including all stills and film materials) for the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition, and it is those very same film materials, including all original coloured tints and negatives, which have been used in the restoration of Noel’s superb documentary record of the fateful expedition.
The Epic of Everest is also notable for being one of the very first filmed records of life in Tibet, and amongst the most intriguing and eye-opening scenes in the film are those of the vulnerable, isolated communities of Phari Dzong (Pagri), Shekar Dzong (Xegar) and the Rongbuk monastery, struggling to survive under the harsh conditions of Everest’s colossal shadow.
The 37-year old George Mallory and 22-year old Andrew Irvine came closer to reaching the summit of the towering, 8848-metre high Everest, known to the Tibetan people as ‘Chomolungma’ (Goddess Mother of the World), than in any previous attempt, however the expedition tragically culminated in the deaths of both Mallory and Irvine, two of the finest and most important mountaineers of their generation (and an inspiration to the future generations of climbers) when they mysteriously disappeared on their attempt to summit. The question of whether or not the pair successfully made it to the summit is still to this day the subject of much debate, and although Mallory’s body was discovered by the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition team in May 1999 (75-years on from the 1924 expedition), the resulting evidence unfortunately proved inconclusive.
Framed with great precision and captured with a visionary photographer’s eye – presenting a kaleidoscopic array of alluring visuals, mystical light and ominous shadows, all unfolding against the cavernous backdrop of the remote and eerily enigmatic, snow-engulfed Himalayan landscape – Noel’s film proves a strangely hypnotic and unexpectedly enlightening affair. Though we of course know the ill-fated outcome of the expedition, never for one minute does Noel’s film feel melancholic or too despondent.
It is of course moving and highly contemplative in its overall composition (adding to the poetic, spiritual tones of the piece), however the central focus of the film is in celebrating the extraordinary, pioneering achievements of these great men and exploring both the relationship between Everest and the mountaineers intent on conquering the 29,029 elevation, and the near-religious reverence with which the Nepalese and Tibetan natives hold the great Chomolungma.
The intertitles serve not merely as a device to narrate the events presented, but also as a silent, philosophical voice with which to present a series of rhetorical questions and thoughts for the viewer to continually consider and reflect upon as the visual record of the expedition unfolds.
Incorporating an unusual combination of pulsating, synthesised rhythms, found sounds, authentic Nepalese instruments and both A cappella and accompanied vocals, Simon Fisher Turner’s newly commissioned, primarily electronic score proves a very effective complement to the superb visuals of Noel’s stunning film. A reconstructed version of the much more traditional original 1924 score (recreated by Julie Brown) is also featured on the disc for the film purists who wish to view and hear the film in its most authentic form.
★★★★ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
Maybe every silent movie has something of the tomb about it at this remove, but it's hard to imagine one as utterly haunting as this; a document by Captain John Noel of the doomed Mallory-Irving attempt at climbing Everest. It starts off in a mode of imperial condescension, musing on how Tibetans aren't "the most musical race", but giving a hearty thumbs-up to their mountain climbing abilities and the cuteness of their babies. This can be quaintly funny in a Mr. Chomoldley-Warner way, but as the film begins to focus on the two climbers it becomes deeply solemn.
Captured on blue, lilac and red-tinted film, the massive slabs of ice and rolling clouds look genuinely anti-human in their inhospitability. The soundtrack, by Derek Jarman's regular collaborator Simon Fisher Turner, is an absolutely astonishing piece of work, ranging from traditional Tibetan folk music to ominous industrial-electronic sounds. And in the middle of all of this, Mallory and Irving, two tiny figures, so far in the distance we rarely see their faces, with Noel's wordy, charmingly eloquent captions reminding us that this is the last adventure either man would go on.
Sometimes I try to reconcile my love for H.P. Lovecraft's storytelling with his obvious, unpleasant racism. One of the strategies I have for this is to remind myself that he was not, in the literal sense of the phrase, a white supremacist. His stories are about white fragility, his terrified suspicion that the white man's psyche and society are unusually porous and weak things prone to colonisation and collapse. I think, had he seen The Epic of Everest, he would have been deeply frightened by how Noel's captions move from patronising the Tibetans' belief systems to accepting that yes, Everest is a sacred goddess and Mallory and Irving died because men were not meant to climb it. Noel expresses these opinions quite sincerely at the end of the film. It reminded me of the ending of so many of Lovecraft's stories, the hero broken by the horror that he's seen, traumatised by the knowledge that those old folk stories he used to scoff at are actually a reflection of something true and elemental which society rightly shields us from. And all this in - literally - the whitest place on Earth, with huge walls of that colour and nothing else...
In its own way, a fantastic found-footage horror movie.
★★★★★ review by FilmApe on Letterboxd
Awe inspiring footage of Everest, shot almost one hundred years ago. The modern score is atmospheric, and gives the whole experience a dream/nightmarish quality. The long range, and time lapse footage couldn't be more impressive to me. Love it.
★★★½ review by Oob on Letterboxd
Hard to take The Epic of Everest as anything other than an elegy, not only for doomed climbers George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, but for the pristine, otherworldly majesty of the mountain as a whole. J.B.L Noel’s record of Mallory and Irvine’s 1924 attempt at the world’s highest peak marks a paradigm shift, the point where Everest no longer stood as legend, an alien, unconquerable beast, but an obstacle to be overcome, the final great hurdle to the Western world’s presumed supremacy over the earth. This transition doesn't go unnoticed by Noel; one of the first intertitles reads, “And what men shall take up this challenge and win this last battle, which is perhaps the most tremendous of all?”
While the inevitability of such an undertaking is a forgone conclusion, the results bring into question the ultimate nobility of Mallory and Irvine's quest. Seeing the mountain in The Epic of Everest becomes a spiritual event, a witnessing of the divine made real, the Goddess Mother of the World in her supreme, uncorrupted glory. Seeing it now, littered with the bodies and the detritus from almost a century of adventurers and opportunists seeking to follow Mallory’s lead, feels an insult, a defilement of something once mysterious and holy and grand. The Epic of Everest is a tragic story, no doubt, but the greatest tragedy may be the fate of Chomolungma herself.
★★★★ review by loureviews on Letterboxd
"Into the heart of the pure blue ice, rare, cold, beautiful, lonely - Into a fairyland of ice."
John Noel's hypnotic film about the attempt by George Mallory and Sandy Irvine to climb Everest is more akin to an art installation than a documentary, with its Nepalese influenced new score (by Simon Fisher Turner), wordy intertitle slides, and tinted footage of the then-unspoilt vistas across Tibet.
The film looks sumptuous, and we are simply observers in what eventually becomes an obvious tragedy (the explorers never returned from their climb, and evidence may suggest that they never reached the top). Whether this was simply bad luck and poor preparation, or some breach of an ancient prophecy that claimed Everest as sacred and its summit denied to man, is left an open question by this film.
For an accurate (if slightly patronising) view of Tibetan life in the 1920s, this film is very valuable indeed, and it represents a world now long departed. The mountains themselves are forbidding and rule over all, and in their shadow Mallory and Irvine are seen largely as little, insignificant dots; human, yes, but of no consequence, although we do get a disturbingly cheery caption about young Irvine at 22 'having no idea in two weeks he would be dead'.
Inspired by Ponting's 'The Great White Silence', also released in 1924, and looking at the adventures of Captain Scott and his team; both films present adventurous attempts to conquer natural obstacles. Both are well worth seeing, as is Frank Hurley's South (1919), looking at Shackleton's attempt to reach the South Pole.
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