The summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, was something that eluded even the most determined climbers until it was finally conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Until then, mountaineers had come close but all were defeated by the brutal terrain and unforgiving elements.
In 1924, a group of British explorers attempted to take on the mighty Everest but their mission was doomed. Although questions have been raised about whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine did in fact reach the summit, both disappeared on the mountain. Astonishingly, the tragic expedition was captured on film by Captain John Noel and later released as The Epic of Everest.
Now, after being restored by the BFI, it has been re-released giving modern audiences an insight into the enormity of the challenge. Making use of colour filters, the stunning landscape takes on a dream-like quality, underpinned by Simon Fisher Turner’s haunting score. But that does not detract from the harshness of the conditions and it is difficult to believe that the explorers climbed the mountain wearing blazers and breeches.
The film also sheds light on Western attitudes at that time. The British Empire was still a long way off being dismantled and there is a sort of colonialism in the quest to conquer the mountain. History does not always remember the local porters, one of whom was a woman, who heroically hauled cumbersome boxes of supplies up the mountain. Some of the language of the film may seem distasteful to us today but by the end there is a feeling of humility. Captain Noel concludes that instead of just being ‘rock and snow’ the mountain has a spiritual quality which was recognised by local communities long before Western explorers set foot on it.
The Epic of Everest is on at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema until 2nd January.