LFF 2013: ‘The Epic of Everest’ review

The flagship restoration of this year’s London Film Festival Archive strand, Captain John Noel’s The Epic of Everest (1924) is both a spirited log of grand adventure and a sombre testament to the lives lost during a treacherous third attempt to scale the great Himalayan peak. Featuring a new score from Simon Fisher Turner (who also worked on 2011’s Great White Silence rejuvenation, again with the BFI), Noel’s masterwork is a remarkable feat of filmmaking, shot as it was on specially adapted cameras in the harshest of conditions, but to this day remains both entertaining and surprisingly spiritual.

Having already measured up Everest whilst on leave from his Indian regiment in 1913, Captain Noel was an individual consumed with adoration for the monolithic centrepiece of the Himalayas. It wasn’t until 1919, however, Noel first publicly suggested that mountain be scaled, a challenge met in 1920. Though no moving images are known to exist of the first 1921 expedition, the pioneering Noel shot his first footage of Everest (and Tibet) on a second voyage in 1922. Thus, for the third expedition in 1924 – depicted in The Epic of Everest – Noel cannily bought the rights to all still photography and film material in advance. What he returned with was a majestic documentation of a death-defying ascent and an ultimately tragic descent.

Lost on the return route were George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, two renowned British climbers who may or may not have reached the summit before succumbing to the elements on the way back down. However, The Epic of Everest certainly isn’t the downbeat mausoleum piece it so easily have become, being as it is as much about the joy of discovery and humankind’s relationship with the mythical titular mountain as it is about death and sacrifice. Most compelling is arguably the anthropological exploration of the Nepalese communities that live out their lives in Everest’s shadow, with Turner’s eclectic score – featuring a combination of synthesised mood music and genuine Nepalese instruments and vocals – aurally complementing Noel’s stunning visuals.

It’s not until the film’s final few moments, however, that The Epic of Everest moves onto a higher, poetic and arguably even mythological level, explaining how the native Nepalese both revere and worship the mountain that so many Westerners have travelled to conquer. Noel appears equally enthralled with the adversary that has just taken the lives of his companions Mallory and Irvine, but at no point comes across as fearful or remorseful. The Italian climber Reinhold Messner, who succeeded in reaching the summit without the aid of oxygen back in 1978, did so not under duress nor due to outrageous fortune, but simply because he could. Messner, Noel and countless others before and since have all experience what many have not – a magnetic pull towards the monumental.

The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Daniel Green