Even if it were nothing else, Captain John Noel’s documentary The Epic of Everest (1924) would be an astonishing historical document. A technologically cutting edge look at an unsuccessful bid for greatness, the film documents the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition, the second effort after a failed 1922 try. Noel’s film is a thorough journalistic record, the detailed narrative spilling out over dozens of intertitle cards, among images of extensive preparations in Tibet and the eventual climbing attempts.
But The Epic of Everest frequently transcends mere documentary status; its images of the imposing mountain face, sometimes dotted with minuscule human figures, are mind-blowing, even in this age of Planet Earth and Imax nature docs, where seemingly every detail is brought right up into our faces. Noel’s work isn’t just descriptive; he treats Everest like a living entity, and shots of the mountain’s surfaces have an appropriate blend of awe and terror.
For the men on this expedition, Mount Everest might as well have been an alien being. In the film’s early moments, there are some moderately colonialist observations about the Tibetan people and their strange customs, but Noel’s fascination with the their otherness is nothing compared to how he regards the mountain. A number of shots of men trudging across the snowy landscapes look like something out of a sci-fi film. Intertitles make bold proclamations about the explorers standing where no other human has ever stood, and as a viewer, you’re feeling confident in going a step further — are these people still on Earth?
Captain John Baptist Lucius Noel was one of 12 British men and numerous Tibetan and Sherpa porters to make the trek. Armed with a customized 35mm camera that was both extremely light — less than 20 pounds — and equipped with a 20-inch telephoto lens, Noel could capture action unfolding more than three miles away. No concessions about the era or the technology are necessary to proclaim this a work of technical virtuosity.
The national pride that served as one of the primary motivating factors for the repeated British Everest expeditions is certainly apparent in the film; wide shots of the exploring crew have a self-mythologizing quality, as if the exploits of superheroes were being documented on film. And yet, Noel doesn’t shy away from tragedy when it strikes. The fallibility and fragility of man is embraced rather than downplayed.
The film’s conclusion, after the finality of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s likely failed attempt to reach the summit has been fully realized, escalates into mythic proportions. Noel notes the Tibetan name for the mountain, Chomolungma, literally “Goddess Mother of Mountains,” and the conception of Everest as the giver and taker of life seems to provide some context and some serenity. Noel has the soul of both a fact-obsessed documentarian and a poet — one of the film’s final intertitles extols the virtues of the pure white snow under which Mallory and Irvine’s bodies were hidden away in their final resting place. “If you had … died in the heart of nature, would you, yourself, wish for any better grave?”
The BFI’s new dual-format release of The Epic of Everest features both a Blu-ray and DVD copy of the film. The Blu-ray presents the film in 1080p high definition at 24 frames per second in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. A restoration of the film was undertaken in collaboration with Sandra Noel, the director’s daughter. Sourced from nitrate positives held by the BFI National Archive, the transfer presented here is nothing short of luminous. One gets the feeling of watching an exceptional 35mm print, with a beautiful grain structure and excellent levels of fine detail. The original color tinting has been conscientiously recreated, and all intertitles have been reconstructed and restored from the original film elements.
On the audio side, the disc defaults to the newly commissioned score by Simon Fisher Turner, an arresting, moody ambient piece sprinkled with bits of period music and droning sound effects, like a foreboding storm composite that plays out over a climactic moment. To be sure, this is a much more experimental piece than anything that would have accompanied the film in 1924, and there were times where I felt like the score almost hit the tipping point of overwhelming the imagery. Mostly though, I was able to appreciate the unconventional sensibilities of Noel’s filmmaking all the more because of Turner’s score.
And for anyone who can’t abide by the avant-garde accompaniment, BFI has gone the extra mile and also included a recreation of the 1924 score, sourced from more than 25 selections of music, reconstructed and directed by Julie Brown. Turner’s score is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, while the 1924 score is given a lossless 2.0 track. Region-locked consumers will be happy to know that the Blu-ray disc is region-free.
Bonus features included in the set are:
- Introducing The Epic of Everest (9 minutes) Sandra Noel and silent film curator Bryony Dixon offer an overview of the production history of the film.
- Scoring The Epic of Everest (8 minutes) Simon Fisher Turner talks about the genesis of many of the ideas underpinning his new score.
- Restoring The Epic of Everest (6 minutes) Dixon, archivist Ben Thompson and Lisa Copson of Deluxe Digital discuss the necessary restoration work and what was done to bring the film into the digital realm.
- Four audio-only musical extras that feature pieces that accompanied the film at its first London screening: Prelude to Part I, Untitled; Prelude to Part I, Tibetan Lamas; Prelude to Part II, ‘Tibetan Pastoral Music’; The Mount Everest Suite: Airs of Tibet and Nepal
- A downloadable PDF of the original 1924 film program (only accessible on the DVD copy)
- 30-page booklet, featuring an essay on the film by author and anthropologist Wade Davis, a piece on the fundraising commemorative expedition stamp by Sandra Noel, a restoration overview by Kieron Webb and notes on their scores by Simon Fisher Turner and Julie Brown
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, the BFI’s The Epic of Everest Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ***1/2
New Extra Features: ***
Extra Features Overall: ***
British Film Institute
1924 / Black & White/Tinted / 1:33:1 / 87 min / £19.99