Playing to a full house at the Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre Film Club was a documentary that was originally shoot in 1924. The filming of The Epic of Everest was the responsibility of mountaineer and filmmaker Captain John Noel whose father was the younger son of the second earl of Gainsborough. Noel was educated in Switzerland where he first fell in love with the mountains. Spending his summers near the Himalayas, it was in 1913 that he first travelled to Tibet to reconnoitre the approaches to Everest. He had disguised himself as a ‘Mohammedan from India’ darkening his skin and hair and, travelling by pony with a Garhwali, a Nepalese Sherpa and a Bhotia, had slipped into Tibet without permission, avoiding villages, and got within forty miles of the mountain before being turned back by Tibetan troops.
Joining the 1922 Everest expedition as its official photographer and filmmaker he produced a short film called Climbing Mount Everest (1922). But it was in 1924 that Noel formed a private company which paid £8000, a very large sum of money in 1924, for all photographic and film rights to the expedition, this generous offer guaranteed that the trek would take place. He used a specially adapted camera and an early telephoto lens that enabled spectacular shots of the summit and climbers on the mountain including, of course, the last shots of Mallory and Irvine within what later climbers have described as striking distance of the top. Though he had no climbing responsibilities he did get to over 7000m with his kit.
The host for this screening was a very enthusiastic Michael Gray who told us that the reason we were able to watch this great technical achievement was due to the restoration carried out by the BFI National Archive which had transformed the quality of the surviving elements of the film and reintroduced the original coloured tints and tones and was premiered in October 2013. It included a newly commissioned score composed, orchestrated and conducted by Simon Fisher Turner which features a haunting combination of electronic music, found sounds, western and Nepalese instruments and vocals.
Mike went on to tell us that the classic silent film feature has been retained, which makes the ‘plot’ unfold slowly, erratically and even a little mysteriously by modern standards, the narrative story being told through ‘inter-titles’. Prior to the actual ascent the first part of the film focuses on the peoples that reside at the bottom of the mountain, although John Noel had a very condescending attitude to these people!
The film was followed by a short but enthusiastic discussion where most of the audience seemed to appreciate a chance to see this important historical documentary. My own assessment was not so favourable; having no real ambition to climb cold and inhospitable mountains of any kind. Other than the technical achievement of Captain Noel the film did not entertain nor captivate me. In fact the only part I found interesting was the section that was filmed in the villages and temples of the areas indigenous peoples. We never learned anything about the climbers and a silent documentary is certainly not a very informative tool. But to be fair the majority of the audience did not share my views.