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Ant-like figures on Everest

A classic mountaineering movie from the 1920s is back on the big screen

Simon Willis | November/December 2013

It is 60 years since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled Everest, and the British Film Institute is marking the anniversary with a series of mountain movies. The glorious centrepiece is “The Epic of Everest”, a documentary about George Mallory’s expedition in 1924. It is an ascent shrouded, like Everest itself, in mist and myth.

Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who was just 22, were last seen a few hundred feet below the summit. Nobody knows if they ever made it. That they were seen at all is down to Captain John Noel, who shot this film on hulking cameras carried 22,000 feet up the mountain. We see the ant-like figures of the two men climbing at 26,000 feet, captured by Noel from two miles away—some of the earliest long-range film in the history of cinema. It’s a technical miracle, and the crux of the film’s rhetorical force, which begins as an imperial "battle with nature" fought by "supermen", but ends in pathos: "we who are so little". 

As well as derring-do there is delicacy. Noel’s footage of Tibetan life is irresistibly fresh and spontaneous, the women with aureoles twined into their hair, children getting wind-resistant butter-baths to fend off the cold, a beggar-man beating a drum. At one point a donkey is born en route. The BFI has commissioned a new score, by Simon Fisher Turner—a blend of horns and bells and strange glacial cracks, both sublime and subterranean—and restored the original tints, giving the film back its cold blues and blazing red sunsets. But the star is the mountain, with its gothic towers of ice and wind-whipped peak, "grand, solemn, unutterably lonely". ~ Simon Willis

The Epic of Everest British release Oct 18th. The Extreme Summits season runs Oct 21st to Nov 22nd

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