The Epic of Everest
The Epic of Everest, historical documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
There were some thousand people on Mount Everest’s south side in April when the Nepalese earthquake, its epicenter about 140 miles from the mountain, sent an avalanche into the base camp in Nepal, situated at about 17,600 feet. Nineteen climbers were killed there, the majority of them Nepalese Sherpas employed to get the foreigners to the top. Other climbers were briefly stranded on routes higher up the mountain. The crushed tents and debris at base camp, looking much like the Midwestern suburbs of America after a tornado, are a far cry from the tiny, isolated camps of ragged canvas tents seen in the British Film Institute’s restoration of John Noel’s 1924 silent film, The Epic
of Everest. More art film than climbing document, it follows that year’s ill-fated British expedition toward the peak’s north side, through a landscape that’s been largely obscured behind the headlines.
Everest, a mountain that has often seemed to be defined by its tragedies, is legendary for its oxygen-deficient Death Zone above 26,000 feet, where climbers begin a long process of consuming their own bodies. Since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first reached the summit in 1953, the mountain has slowly been losing its reputation of extremely forbidding remoteness, functioning instead in modern times as a symbol of achievement for thrill-seeking, mostly wealthy, and inexperienced mountaineers known to turn a blind eye to fellow climbers down and dying along the way.
Noel’s remarkable 90-year-old film restores the mountain’s wonder and mystery. With long fixed-camera takes, it captures the desolation, scale, and silence of the peak now associated with evacuation helicopters, trash-disposal problems, and labor disputes. In Noel’s film, the landscape takes the leading role. The smallness of the climbers crossing the vast, virginal, and visually stunning scenery brings perspective to the circus that the climbing season now brings to the mountain.
The Epic of Everest serves up layer upon layer of historical documentation, beginning with the long trek past Tibetan villages and landmarks and up glacial river valleys to reach the mountain’s base. Noel, filming places little known at the time — and as yet to appear on film — captured ways of life in Tibet before outside pressures began to interfere with them. The film has uncomfortable moments, such as when it condescends, through a subtitled narrative, to local cultures in ways most Westerners wouldn’t have been as sensitive to in the 1920s. The villages and their “unwashed” people consist of “hovels begrimed with the smoke of the Argos fires,” each with a barking mastiff tied near the entrance. Early in the climb, the deaths of two porters from frostbite and exposure are treated matter-of-factly. On the other hand, there are some entrancing, lingering portraits of individuals — for instance, depictions of women wearing hair adornments and hermits ensconced in their cliffside dwellings — that suggest a lost world.
The footage can follow George Mallory, Andrew Irvine, and the other climbers only so far up the 29,035-foot mountain. Noel and his crew made it to 23,000 feet and a camp called Ice Cliff, a remarkable accomplishment for men toting hand-cranked camera equipment. On the way to Ice Cliff, the climbers struggled through a surreal landscape of glaciers, snowfields, icefalls, and impossibly steep rock. It’s suggested, as a way of playing up the mountain’s mysteries, that it has supernatural powers and is home to gnomes and imps — that, in the end, larger forces are at play. “Something more than physical had opposed us in this battle where human strength and Western science had broken and failed,” the titles tell us, and the visuals leave no doubt about the mountain’s magical qualities. Some black-and-white scenes in the film were originally color-tinted, but this new restoration brings back the true tones — with a blue wash giving the icy “fairy land” a particular chill and red hues deepening the sunsets. In black and white, the ice fields appear to be sculpted, with rock cliffs that have been blown clear of snow glistening like steel. The ever-present clouds move at time-lapse speeds, surging off the ridge tops, streaming from the peaks, rising thick from the valleys. Above Ice Cliff, the camera follows the team as far as three miles away by telescope, the surprisingly sharp scenes framed in a camera lens’s circle.
The music to this silent film is an important part of its hypnotic character. Simon Fisher Turner’s new score is part field recordings, part orchestral and electronic backdrop. Fanfares herald sunsets, and the swirling sounds of synthesized winds accompany the rushing clouds. Much of the music imparts a strange sense of foreboding. Despite its contemporary electronics, Turner’s soundtrack is timeless, as surreal and majestic as the film itself, despite the occasional pops and clicks that give the new score a dated sound, as if it were the result of restoration too. The written titles sometimes reach poetic heights — Everest is described as “smoking with driven mist and snow” — but can also be trivial, occasionally even used to glorify the expedition’s British heroes. Howard Somervell, a surgeon as well as a mountaineer, and Mallory, we’re told, save the lives of men stranded for four days on the side of a cliff by way of their “sheer mountaineering skills.” The accompanying footage shows the men, seen through the telescope, floundering across a distant snowfield. As mentioned before, when the subtitles cite local folklore or make vague references to spiritual forces, the condescension becomes somewhat unbearable for audiences with modern sensibilities. Death, the only constant in Everest’s long and varied climbing history, makes itself felt when Mallory and Irvine fail to return from their summit attempt. Had they made it to the top almost 30 years ahead of Norgay and Hillary? Or had they perished in the inhospitable winds and temperatures of the chillingly beautiful Death Zone, helpless in their low-tech mountaineering gear?
— Bill Kohlhaase
Props: mountaineer and filmmaker John Noel at his camera on the Tibetan side of Everest, 1924