The Epic of Everest

While watching “The Epic of Everest,” the 1924 silent film about the attempt by George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine to reach the summit of Mount Everest, I became awed by the spectacle of the mountain while wondering about the foolishness of man. The British film about the British mountain-climbing team takes its time telling the story in detail about the adventure and subsequent disappearance of Mallory and Irvine while climbing Mt. Everest.

A scene from "The Epic of Everest."

A scene from “The Epic of Everest.”

The film gives us a spooky reminder in gray and mostly white about the vastness and unforgiving nature of the mountain. With so much of the landscape covered in snow, director and cinematographer John Noel decided to tint some of the scenes in red and blue, adding an eerie contrast and beauty to this remarkable, unforgiving and deadly landscape. The mountaineers took their approach from the Tibetan side, where Noel took the liberty of filming some very hardy villagers living close to the mountain they call “Qomolangma,” which means “mountain goddess.” We see the villagers performing their tribal customs and doing normal things such as herding animals. The title cards tell us that the natives spread butter on their children’s skin to ward off the effects of the sun and the cold. Noel seems to present these people as an oddity to the viewers, but as the tragic story unfolds, their customs, motivations and technology seem more natural and effective than Mallory and Irvine’s expedition.

In a successful attempt to climb Mt. Everest, one might expect a view from the top and a flag to be planted at the summit. However, this expedition failed miserably and Noel’s record of the events includes a maddening amount of conjecture about the mountaineer’s fate. That’s because the camera did not go with them all the way. Noel stayed behind while Mallory and Irvine trudged on. The cameraman and director filmed off into the distance while the title cards offered tentative and hopeful reports about the journey. The ice shelves, the peak, and the valleys presented in lonely long-shots reinforced the mystery of both the men’s disappearance and the power of the mountain.

I saw this film, a recent restoration by the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive, at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF). Bryony Dixon, representing BFI, said at the Castro Theater (San Francisco) screening on May 31st that the film emphasizes the influence of British silent filmmakers in producing quality nature films. SFSFF presented another quality British nature epic at the 2011 festival, when they screened “The Great White Silence,” the 1924 film that contains extensive footage of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1910-1911 attempt to reach and return from the South Pole.

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