This restored film is receiving its world premiere at the BFI Archive Gala on 18 October 2013 at the 57th London Film Festival. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a press screening preview.
When discussing films that are almost 90 years old — silent, black-and-white films from what seems like a dramatically remote era of modern history — you can apply different standards as to what makes them interesting: just the very existence of images from so long ago can be the cause of wonderment that wouldn’t be the case if the film had been made almost any time since. And though there are certainly aspects of that while watching this travelogue of a 1924 expedition to conquer Mount Everest, I think the majestic power of the images captured is at times as great as it would be in any subsequent film on the subject.
Part of the reason for the film’s power — and it does still have a marvellous capacity to create awe — is the newly-commissioned score by Simon Fisher Turner, who also recently worked on the re-release of another restored travelogue documentary of the era, The Great White Silence (1924). Vast shards of sweeping electronic tones locate us in that mythic territory that Popol Vuh explored in Werner Herzog’s similarly doomed epics of colonialist exploration in the 1970s and 1980s, but with a rougher overlay of sonic distortion, cracks and warping suggesting the greater age of the film. There’s also a more recognisably human element as snatches of naive local melodies and archival sounds from the era (provided via the director’s daughter) are interpolated into the score along with the subtle use of appropriate sonic cues to accompany on-screen action, such as flowing water when we see a river, or the scratch of a pen on paper in a letter-writing scene.
While the new music is marvellously fitting, it would not amount to much without Captain John Noel’s stunning images of Everest and the surrounding lands. I’ve already mentioned Herzog’s films, and there’s something here of the same grandeur and folly to shots of the explorers and their Sherpa guides wending a zig-zagged path across the vast barren snowscapes of Tibet. This is the terrain that the bulk of the film takes up — small, lonely figures set against the vastness of nature, interspersed with views of their camps and watchful shots of the mountainous challenges ahead. Noel in the film’s intertitles is very fond to emphasise the latest technology he’s employed to get these shots from great distances (the camera is unable to go beyond the camp at 22,000 feet), and the telephoto lens is put to good use towards the film’s climax.
But this is 1924, almost three decades before the first (verified) successful attempt on the mountain, and there’s still the need to locate the drama in an implacable fight of Man against Nature, the latter a vengeful, divine presence — for, after all, two of the mountaineers (George Mallory and Andrew Irvine) died in this attempt. Plentiful intertitles, most wearyingly towards the end of the film, make the connections plain, while also at times casting the enterprise in its more bare, colonialist light. Interludes featuring the local Sherpa population affect the patronising imperialist tone that one sometimes finds in travelogues of this long-ago era, the natives derided for being unwashed and not taking naturally to music. Though even here, it never quite becomes overbearing. This last point about their musicality, for example, is illustrated with plenty of evidence to the contrary, while elsewhere the Sherpas are clearly rather bemused by these pipe-smoking interlopers. The views we see too of their monasteries and hermitages perched precariously on the side of rocky mountainous outcroppings clearly give the lie to any implication about their backwardness.
Ultimately, music and images combine to create a fascinating document of a long-vanished era in exploration at one of the world’s harsher extremes. Projected on the big screen, the effect is one that is as wondrous and affecting as it must have originally been in 1924. I can recommend seeking it out if you have the chance.
Director/Cinematographer John Noel; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at BFI, London, Tuesday 3 September 2013.