The Epic of Everest

The Epic of Everest ★★★★

Maybe every silent movie has something of the tomb about it at this remove, but it's hard to imagine one as utterly haunting as this; a document by Captain John Noel of the doomed Mallory-Irving attempt at climbing Everest. It starts off in a mode of imperial condescension, musing on how Tibetans aren't "the most musical race", but giving a hearty thumbs-up to their mountain climbing abilities and the cuteness of their babies. This can be quaintly funny in a Mr. Chomoldley-Warner way, but as the film begins to focus on the two climbers it becomes deeply solemn.

Captured on blue, lilac and red-tinted film, the massive slabs of ice and rolling clouds look genuinely anti-human in their inhospitability. The soundtrack, by Derek Jarman's regular collaborator Simon Fisher Turner, is an absolutely astonishing piece of work, ranging from traditional Tibetan folk music to ominous industrial-electronic sounds. And in the middle of all of this, Mallory and Irving, two tiny figures, so far in the distance we rarely see their faces, with Noel's wordy, charmingly eloquent captions reminding us that this is the last adventure either man would go on.

Sometimes I try to reconcile my love for H.P. Lovecraft's storytelling with his obvious, unpleasant racism. One of the strategies I have for this is to remind myself that he was not, in the literal sense of the phrase, a white supremacist. His stories are about white fragility, his terrified suspicion that the white man's psyche and society are unusually porous and weak things prone to colonisation and collapse. I think, had he seen The Epic of Everest, he would have been deeply frightened by how Noel's captions move from patronising the Tibetans' belief systems to accepting that yes, Everest is a sacred goddess and Mallory and Irving died because men were not meant to climb it. Noel expresses these opinions quite sincerely at the end of the film. It reminded me of the ending of so many of Lovecraft's stories, the hero broken by the horror that he's seen, traumatised by the knowledge that those old folk stories he used to scoff at are actually a reflection of something true and elemental which society rightly shields us from. And all this in - literally - the whitest place on Earth, with huge walls of that colour and nothing else...

In its own way, a fantastic found-footage horror movie.

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