Directed by: J.B.L. Noel
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 87 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 27 January 2014
Cat No: BFIB1154
Screen ratio 1:1.33
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby Digital 5.1
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Nowadays, Everest has become a well-trodden stop-off on the tourist trail, littered with Brian Blessed’s sandwich wrappers, but back in 1924, it was gleaming, untouched, yet to be fully conquered or mastered – a vast expanse of virgin snow poised tantalisingly out of reach at the furthest extremes of colonial India. Which adventurous fellow could resist her? Not the cameraman and explorer John Noel, for one. Noel begged and borrowed enough money, equipment and kudos to tag along with George Mallory and Andrew Irvine on their expedition of that year, and the resulting silent document, The Epic of Everest, is now being re-released with a new Simon Fisher Turner score.
Noel’s film is two things simultaneously. It returned home as newsreel: a record of a major (and, it turned out, tragic) event. It re-emerges, however, as a notable entry in the silents’ 'cinema of attractions', impressing upon viewers not just the scale of the mountain – dubbed Chomolungma ('goddess and mother of the world') by the Tibetans – but also of the expedition sent forth to claim her, composed as it was of hundreds of men and animals.
These daring souls are sometimes caught in awkward close-up – the explorers looking particularly incongruous on the foothills in their Sunday best, smoking pipes – but are mostly observed at a safe distance, set against the object of their attentions, and resembling distant specks on the face of history; in the closing stages, an iris effect reduces the image to a perfect (and very Tibetan) circle, making it look as though the men were climbing the planet. Suddenly, the whole world is at stake, which may well have been the case for the colonialists.
Some of the early Tibet footage squares with the ethnography then being practised by Robert Flaherty: there’s a degree of gawping at the strange locals, with their funny hairdos, prematurely lined faces and curious rituals. And evidence of some dubious colonial attitudes persists in the intertitles: we’re told those same locals apparently go 'without a wash their whole lives' and that, while 'we cannot call them a musical race', 'there might be a place for some of their instruments in our modern orchestra', as if these grubby sorts needed their culture reappropriated.
Ironically enough, Fisher Turner’s new score – with its throat singing, ethnic flutes and cowbells – does something not a million miles away: as with Nitin Sawhney’s electronic accompaniment for the BFI re-release of The Lodger, this addition can feel rather self-consciously modern, not to mention intrusive and repetitive, restating sounds that which we can already see.
Absolutely none of this matters, though, when the film goes in pursuit of higher things. Around the mountain itself – which, even in 2D, looms out of the Academy frame – there has been preserved (frozen?) a crystalline ionosphere of capital-R Romanticism, providing an early, dizzying hit of what audiences would later swoon at in Leni Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light, and those other films in the German berg cycle.
Noel makes light work of what must have been an agonisingly slow ascent: we’re never shown the bodies that fell to frostbite or over-exposure, but instead snowy recesses that look like early Guy Maddin sets, vertical climbs that would subsequently demand the participation of stunt performers, and – once we get there, or thereabouts – dazzling views from the uppermost peaks, occasionally presented in Koyaanisqatsi-like timelapse.
The expedition would prove deadly, this we know, and in the closing moments, we bear witness as colonial arrogance – that sense that Britain would naturally lay claim to this mountain, just as it had conquered the high ground elsewhere – is chastened by Mother Nature, obliging Noel to adopt a new, more thoughtful, perhaps even spiritual tack: The Epic of Everest may be the first recorded example of a documentarist changing their mind about their subject over the course of a production.
Perhaps only the camera, and having to be a few steps behind the action, spared Noel the fate of Mallory and Irvine – but then, who wouldn’t want to die on, around or even for this shimmering Everest, given the extraordinary sights she allows these men, and now a whole new generation of viewers, to see?