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A Restored Documentary of the 1924 Mount Everest Expedition
on 24 November 2014
In 1924, a team of British explorers headed by Charles Bruce made the third recorded attempt to scale the summit of Mount Everest. The attempt led to the deaths of two mountaineers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, at or near the summit. It remains a matter of conjecture whether Mallory and Irvine had in fact reached the summit of Mount Everest.
The 1924 team included a photographer, Captain John Noel, who made a detailed documentary of the climb as well as purchasing all rights to the film. Noel used a hand-cranked camera which is much more primitive than today's equipment but he captured the stark beauty and coldness of the mountain and the difficulties of the climb. For many years, Noel's documentary has been unavailable but it has recently been beautifully restored and released as this silent film, "Epic of Everest". I saw the film in a theater in a presentation sponsored by the National Gallery of Art and the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland. Stephen Horne, a composer and a leading British accompanist of silent film, beautifully improvised on the piano for the eighty-seven minute duration of the film.
This film is an outstanding historical record of the attempt on Everest. In addition to showing the climb, the film offers excellent rare footage of Tibetan people, villages and monasteries, including scenes of the world's highest village and of the Rongbuk Monastery at the foot of the mountain. A Lama at the monastery had wished the expedition well, but he predicted that the spirits surrounding the mountain would result in the failure of the attempt on the summit. The film also captures the lengthy trek to the mountain in a caravan of yaks. The yaks needed to abandoned when the mountain air became too thin for them to breathe.
Mount Everest appears in cold, rocky, forbidden, and snowy grandeur. The film captures the heroism and difficulties of the climb for the mountaineers and the accompanying sherpas. There are scenes of early bad weather which resulted in the deaths of two members of the parties and of the slow, treacherous work in the ascent. With a high-powered lens, the film offers a glimpse of Mallory and Irvine tantalizingly close to the summit just before they disappeared. Then, the party waited and searched before realizing that the pair had died. The remaining members of the party constructed a cairn to their memory.
The film includes extensive subtitles commenting upon and explaining the action. It is in black and white with some tinted scenes. The quality of the restoration is excellent.
I enjoyed seeing this film in a theater with a live musical accompaniment. It taught me a great deal about Mount Everest, early 20th Century Tibet, and the 1924 expedition.