Adam G’s review published on Letterboxd:
First screened as the Archive strand Gala feature at the 2013 London Film Festival, Captain John Noel’s ‘The Epic of Everest’, the official record of Mallory and Irvine’s 1924 Everest expedition, proves an enthralling combination of breathtaking imagery, adventure, spirituality, human sacrifice and incredible technical proficiency, captured as it was on a specially adapted camera in extremely harsh conditions. Now, beautifully restored by the BFI – in collaboration with the director’s daughter Sandra Noel – John Noel’s extraordinary achievement remains one of the most remarkable and significant historical documents in the entire BFI National Archive.
Having served as the official photographer and filmmaker for the 1922 British Mount Everest expedition – the first mountaineering expedition with the central aim of making the first ascent of Mount Everest (and notably the first expedition that attempted to climb Everest using bottled oxygen) - Noel then went on to form a private production company, which paid for the entire photographic rights (including all stills and film materials) for the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition, and it is those very same film materials, including all original coloured tints and negatives, which have been used in the restoration of Noel’s superb documentary record of the fateful expedition.
The Epic of Everest is also notable for being one of the very first filmed records of life in Tibet, and amongst the most intriguing and eye-opening scenes in the film are those of the vulnerable, isolated communities of Phari Dzong (Pagri), Shekar Dzong (Xegar) and the Rongbuk monastery, struggling to survive under the harsh conditions of Everest’s colossal shadow.
The 37-year old George Mallory and 22-year old Andrew Irvine came closer to reaching the summit of the towering, 8848-metre high Everest, known to the Tibetan people as ‘Chomolungma’ (Goddess Mother of the World), than in any previous attempt, however the expedition tragically culminated in the deaths of both Mallory and Irvine, two of the finest and most important mountaineers of their generation (and an inspiration to the future generations of climbers) when they mysteriously disappeared on their attempt to summit. The question of whether or not the pair successfully made it to the summit is still to this day the subject of much debate, and although Mallory’s body was discovered by the Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition team in May 1999 (75-years on from the 1924 expedition), the resulting evidence unfortunately proved inconclusive.
Framed with great precision and captured with a visionary photographer’s eye – presenting a kaleidoscopic array of alluring visuals, mystical light and ominous shadows, all unfolding against the cavernous backdrop of the remote and eerily enigmatic, snow-engulfed Himalayan landscape – Noel’s film proves a strangely hypnotic and unexpectedly enlightening affair. Though we of course know the ill-fated outcome of the expedition, never for one minute does Noel’s film feel melancholic or too despondent.
It is of course moving and highly contemplative in its overall composition (adding to the poetic, spiritual tones of the piece), however the central focus of the film is in celebrating the extraordinary, pioneering achievements of these great men and exploring both the relationship between Everest and the mountaineers intent on conquering the 29,029 elevation, and the near-religious reverence with which the Nepalese and Tibetan natives hold the great Chomolungma.
The intertitles serve not merely as a device to narrate the events presented, but also as a silent, philosophical voice with which to present a series of rhetorical questions and thoughts for the viewer to continually consider and reflect upon as the visual record of the expedition unfolds.
Incorporating an unusual combination of pulsating, synthesised rhythms, found sounds, authentic Nepalese instruments and both A cappella and accompanied vocals, Simon Fisher Turner’s newly commissioned, primarily electronic score proves a very effective complement to the superb visuals of Noel’s stunning film. A reconstructed version of the much more traditional original 1924 score (recreated by Julie Brown) is also featured on the disc for the film purists who wish to view and hear the film in its most authentic form.