The phrase "lovingly restored" doesn't begin to cover this flawless BFI reissue of The Epic of Everest. A compelling documentary record of an ill-starred 1923 mountaineering expedition, the snow glistens from every carefully refurbished frame of this eye-popping new print.
Arriving in cinemas some 60 years (and a few months) after
New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Tenzing Norgay reached the top of the highest mountain in the world, the footage provides a parade of logistical marvels.
Hundreds of men, women and beasts set out with a hand-cranked camera and flimsy, primitive climbing gear on what was the third attempt to conquer the summit. We're not shocked when celebrated climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine get into difficulty. Everybody on the expedition appears to have dressed for a Scottish hunting weekend: it's a wonder they allowed
themselves furry boots with "country clothes".
Did they make it to the top? The film can’t say for certain and neither can we. But there’s more to this movie than “mountaincraft”. The first cinematic record of Tibetan life – often accompanied by some unintentionally hilarious colonial intertitles (“They don’t wash a day in their lives!”) – provides a neat subversion of Great White Hunter mythology.
Despite the colossus of the venture, despite the aid of new-fangled typewriters and telescopic lenses, the expedition soon wonders if there isn’t something to the natives’ superstitions. Perhaps the peak these unhygienic Tibetans call Chomolungma (“Goddess Mother of the World”) is protected, as the locals claim, by llama gods and snow monsters.
Simon Fisher Turner's (The Great White Silence) splendid marriage of traditional Nepalese instruments and electronica adds texture without treading across the original film-makers' intentions. The orchestration adds to the notion we're watching one of the most extraordinary things we'll ever see.