Review by Nick Smith
The eight British expeditions to conquer Everest between 1922 and 1953 were a series of attempts to assert the superiority of Empire planning and technology over the planet’s most inaccessible place. Self-financed by the 1924 expedition's official photographer John Noel, The Epic of Everest toured worldwide and elevated explorers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine to the status of national heroes following their disappearance and death during an attempt to mount the summit.
Noel’s film begins as a travelogue, illustrating the landscapes of Tibet and the living conditions of its people. He records family life, musicians, religious ceremonies, and agricultural practices, but his shots nearly always include the team’s true goal of the peaks lofting beyond.
At first Noel betrays the arrogance of empire: while Mallory and Irvine are shown walking amongst yaks dressed in pith helmets and ties, we are told that the Tibetans never bathe, live in their own filth, and despite their instruments and religious songs cannot be considered a musical people. But as the base camp approaches a new respect emerges for the sturdiness of their local companions and the religious blessings the explorers receive.
Once into the mountains, the feeling of accompanying a group of all-conquering Empire men quickly recedes. Monochrome film suits the landscape entirely as cloudy skies and landscapes composed of nothing but rock and ice merge together, leaving men picked out as insignificant black pinpricks. The statistics are as numbing as the images: dozens of miles of ice to be traversed, hundreds of footholds to be cut, and camps to be constructed at thousands of feet into the sky.
Physically incapable of carrying the cameras higher than 22,000 feet, Noel put a number of technological innovations to the test and successfully recorded the drama unfolding above him with amazing clarity at a distance of over three miles, using a twenty inch telephoto lens.
A superb digital restoration carried out by the British Film Institute has combined John Noel’s touring copy of his film, donated by his daughter Sandra, with the original processed reels which are now appropriately stored in sub-zero conditions for their permanent preservation. A new score by Simon Fisher Turner mixes recordings of Tibetan monks with the sounds of yak bells, biting winds and deep breath, reaching an icy crescendo at the moment of tragedy.
As Noel begins his conclusion, he asserts that “we spring from nature. In life we defy her. At death we return to her”, and asks the viewer “would you, yourself, wish for any better grave than a grave of pure white snow?”. We realise that a place of mortal danger can also be a place of eternal peace.
The Epic of Everest is the opening event of GU H-ÀRD GU TUR: HIGH ALTITUDE HIGH LATITUDE on Saturday October 28 at 4:30pm. Followed by Mountaineer Doug Scott, talking about his own Hard Road to the summit of Everest at 7.00pm and concluding with Michelle Paver and her chilling ghost story “Thin Air” set on Kangchenjunga one of mountaineering's biggest killers. Tickets for all three events are available for £10, or individually from £4/£3 at lanntair.com/Faclan