Film critic James Rocarols delivers his verdict on extraordinary classic documentary The Epic Of Everest – about an ill-fated expedition to scale the world’s highest mountain.
The BFI scored an unexpected hit with its re-release of Herbert Ponting’s account of Captain Scott’s fateful Antarctic expedition, The Great White Silence, when it premiered at the London Film Festival three years ago.
The painstakingly restored travelogue from 1924 tapped into the British public’s attraction to survival stories, doomed quests and noble failures that somehow signify the nation’s plucky spirit.
The BFI have capitalised on its success by restoring another adventurist document from the silent era: Captain John Noel’s account of the similarly tragic 1924 mission to scale Everest, in which George Mallory and Andrew Irvine mysteriously perished.
As with the previous restoration, the chief appeal of Everest lies in seeing the unexpected clarity and detail of its footage, originating from an era that’s so mythic that it somehow seems to pre-date cinema.
Noel equalled Ponting’s superhuman endeavors in carting his primitive camera equipment around some of the most inhospitable terrains on earth, capturing the majority of the expedition in the process, and perhaps even surpassed Ponting’s technical achievements with his then cutting-edge use of modified lenses to film footage from the most extreme distances yet attempted.
Noel originally planned to exhibit two separate films of his documentary footage, one of which would document the mission while the other focusing on the exotic culture of the Nepalese and their mountain villages on the ascent to Everest.
In the end he combined both ideas and the first half of the film takes the form of the ethnographic surveys that were hugely popular in the cinema of the 1920s. During this sequence some of onscreen title-cards describing the scenes exhibit the kind of chauvinistic attitudes to primitive cultures that you’d expect from such high denizens of the British Empire, which may provoke a few laughs from modern audiences.
But these onscreen texts are largely wonderful – by turns paternalistic, but also poetic and philosophical about the environs, the people and the plight of our protagonists.
Anyone who’s ever seen any of the BFI’s flagship silent restorations will expect to hear the accompanying music of Simon Fisher Turner and again he outdoes himself with a miraculous score combining ambient soundscapes, ethnic instrumentation and evocative effects. It’s Fisher Turner’s scores that elevate these silent restorations and imbues them with wider appeal – his music gives them a cinematic edge that transcends both their documentary and archaic origins to give them a contemporary feel, without coming across like a crude attempt at updating for modern audiences.
It may be a cliché to describe this as a film to sway the unconvinced about the accessible delights of silent cinema, but this truly is a must-see for fans of British pioneer stories, and highly recommended viewing for just about anyone.
The Epic Of Everest is at cinemas around the UK from Friday October 18. Find screenings near you on WOW247