Audrey Kupferberg: The Epic Of Everest
The early 20th century was a time when exploration reflected feelings of nationalist pride and the concept of man versus nature. So much of this activity coincided with the development of motion pictures. As North American, British, and European men—and a few women-- took to remote areas of the world on foot and in land and air vehicles , they brought with them moving picture cameras and still photographic equipment in order to record remote lands and peoples never seen by what they considered to be the civilized world.
In the first decades of the 20th century, expeditions to both poles had been successful. Having reached both extremes of the earth’s surface, certain explorers looked to conquer what they referred to as the third pole – the 10,000-foot high Mt Everest, its majestic peak standing 29,000-feet above sea level.
In 1924 a group of explorers set out to climb Mt Everest. Two of their lead climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, never returned. What happened near or at the top of Everest has never been determined. Whether the two reached the top is a matter of controversy.
The expedition was filmed by explorer and military man Captain John Noel. Titled THE EPIC OF EVEREST, this is a film relatively unknown to modern audiences. Recently, the British Film Institute acquired mastering materials and backing from the Eric Anker-Petersen Charity to beautifully restore this feature-length documentary. It just became available on DVD and BluRay through Kino Classics.
This is an extraordinary film. It is in many ways a visual tone poem. The trip from India, across the plateau of Tibet, and finally to Everest is fascinating. Captain Noel doesn’t seek out action; rather, he presents portraits and breathtaking scenery. He brought 14 still and moving image cameras along on the trek. He thought to bring a customized lightweight movie camera with a newly-conceived telescopic, or telephoto, lens, which allowed him to film the climbers as far as 3 miles away from his site.
Most of the film is a presentation of natural beauty and exoticism. Noel’s images of the Tibetan nomadic people, the climbers themselves and their Sherpa-Nepalese porters, are compelling. The horses and ponies, and the yaks and donkeys that serve as pack animals, are interesting, and there are primitive fortresses, stone villages, and a remote Lamasery. However, it is his scenic studies-- including undisturbed nature, worlds of ice and snow in virgin condition-- that make THE EPIC OF EVEREST one of the most outstanding exploration films of the first half of the 20th century.
And then there is the ending…. The mysterious disappearance of Mallory and Irvine is handled with simplicity and sensitivity. THE EPIC OF EVEREST begins with these words: “Since the beginning of the world men have battled with nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright and such is their destiny.” Throughout the film, these words hold true.
In many ways, THE EPIC OF EVEREST is quite an art film, a study of a landscape that is beautiful. And, as with so many things beautiful, the viewer feels an underlying strength in this natural world and also senses dark foreboding. The last red-tinted shot of the sun setting across Everest is not easily forgotten.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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