Saturday, 19 October 2013

A terrible beauty… The Epic of Everest (1924) with Simon Fisher Turner, London Film Festival

“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest ?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’.” George Mallory

A few years ago they found the body of George Mallory on Everest, it was almost perfectly preserved and frozen to the scree on which he died in 1924 after falling at something like 27,000 feet. It was the eeriest of sights: life and death from history suddenly laid before us on screen, arms out-stretched in a failed attempt to slow his fall on the killer rockslide. He was 37 and left behind a wife and young family along with the mystery of whether or not he and his partner Andrew “Sandy” Irving made the final stage of the ascent.

Andrew Irvine, George Mallory, Edward O. Shebbeare, Capt C. Geoffrey Bruce, Lt Col Edward F. Norton, Dr. T. Howard Somervell, Noel E. Odell, Bentley Beetham and John MacDonald.
Why do people attempt the impossible? There is an irresponsibility and recklessness to such grand adventure – thrill-seeking and self-gratification through a glory that always resonates at a national level. Yet, as Mallory went on to say: “…what we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.”

As a First World War veteran who had seen the futility of brief existence at first hand: surely he was entitled to use his time as he saw fit?

Amazingly, as with Herbert Ponting’s filming of Scott’s Antarctic expedition, a cinematic record was made of this British expeditionary bravery by Captain John Noel who was inspired by Ponting’s achievements and who’s fascination with the Himalayas had dated back over a decade when he snuck into the country during his army service in India.

Colourised Captain John Noel
This was the world premiere of the new restoration of Noel’s incredible film at the Leicester Square Odeon, as this year’s Archive Gala at the BFI London Film Festival. It featured a specially commissioned score from Simon Fisher Turner who performed along with a bespoke ensemble, drafted in to cover everything from glacial electronica to Tibetan folk. Mr Fisher Turner performed a similar service for The Great White Silence – the go-to guy for glaciers (and gardens… or at least Derek Jarman's) and here again his music was perfectly matched to the scale of the sights on screen – awe-inspiring and frightening: a terrible beauty.

This was actually the third attempt to climb Everest the other two in 1921 and 1922 having provided much useful experience for this grand effort. Mallory had been on both as had Noel who helped secured investment for the project based on the filming of this attempt on the “Third Pole” as the Brits would have it or Chomolungma  - the Goddess Mother of the World - for the Tibetans.

Technological advances developed during the war had enabled Noel to make a number of modifications to his camera which was still based on the model used by Ponting. It was coated in rubber so he could use the view-finder without his skin getting frozen stuck, its battery power enabled stop-motion whilst it weighed less than twenty pounds – remarkably light for the time. It didn’t let him down and there are some breath-taking shots of the mountains and valleys as well as the people living on the roof of the world.

The film starts with the mountain gradually being revealed in stop-motion, red-tinted glory as clouds and shadows race away – it is magnificent and the quality of the restoration is quite stunning on the big screen.

There follows some grand imperialist scene setting which is reflected in the later tones of the commentary on Tibetan natives who, it is revealed, do not bathe amongst their other unsavoury traits… I noticed as the expedition continued how the Englishmen appeared to have stopped their toiletry habits too, must be the weather. These men were of their time and they had attitudes to match: the commentary was also playing to a home nation still nursing bruised nationalistic pride after the Empire’s struggles in the Great War.

A group of the expedition's sherpas
Noel’s camera spoke more eloquently of his generous artistic spirit and he establishes a level of sustained aesthetic cohesion that leaves you mildly snow-blinded. When you climb a mountain (even the tiny British ones in my case!) you’re constantly drawn to the summit, measuring it up against your own capacities and it’s no different here. Even when you know things will end in tragedy you follow the climbers’ upward gaze in hope.

Noel positioned his camera near this ledge in order to shoot the higher reaches
The other fascination is just how Noel is going to film the ascent… the closer he gets the bigger the mountain gets and the higher they climb the further away he is. He was not able to carry the camera much beyond 20,000 feet and so used a powerful telephoto lens to focus on the climbers as they pushed on through 24,000 to 26,000 feet and beyond. His camera was up to two miles away and yet you could still make out the climbers.

At one point a snow storm strikes and a small group get stranded in one of the higher camps, a party is sent to rescue them and Noel’s telescopic lens shows the moment when they are led to safety with a thousand foot drop awaiting if they lost footing.

Most poignantly of all, he shows Mallory and Irvine on their last ascent as they head up to their moment of destiny. We’ll probably never know if they made the summit but the evidence suggests perhaps not even though there’s still Mallory’s lost camera and the missing photo of his wife he promised to leave at the top… But, as Noel suggest at the end, living the lives they did, there may have been no better place to die than on this beautiful and impossible mountain – as near to God as man can get.

The film ends as it began in red with shadowy clouds racing to hide the peak of Chomolungma after Noel has pondered whether the goddess is protected by some mystical force… perhaps this is tacit recognition of the force of local belief. After all, science and rationality have been defeated by the mountain and mysteries have been added to those that will remain.

Fisher Turner’s band included Cosi Fanni Tutti (formerly of industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle) on cornet, along with Andrew Blick on trumpet,  James Brooks on brass, drummer Asaf Sirkis and cellist Peter Gregson. The Thapa family provided vocals and an authentic Nepalese touch. Powerful, imposing music that stays lodged in the brain along with Noel's images and the climbers' bravery.

There's an interview with SFT over at The Quietus where you can also hear his remarkable score. A very interesting fellow in his own right as his biography shows...

Noel’s daughter, Sandra, contributed greatly to the restoration and even the soundtrack with some recordings from 1924. She was present to add her own comments to the introduction and gave a moving account of her father’s determination in the face of being labelled a crank and an eccentric. She presented confidently and without any notes: a chip of the old block!

The Epic of Everest is now on general release in cinemas across the UK and a Blu-ray/DVD pack will be available in time for Christmas. But you can also stream it direct using the BFI’s new service – details here.

But, if you can, the film is best watched on as big a screen as possible and that still won’t be quite big enough, it is, indeed, epic. And, you will marvel!

“If we get within 200 yards or so of the top of Everest, we shall go… and if it’s a one-way ticket, so be it.” George Mallory

All images here are copyright BFI and are only featured to entice you into watching their film!

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