By Axel Andersson.
An epic of Everest? The heroics of nature? John Noel’s remarkable 1924 documentary, expertly restored by the BFI with a new evocative score by Simon Fisher Turner, encapsulates the most paradoxical of Romantic tropes. The mountain, Everest, is for sure present—a forbidding thing to be conquered. But it does, naturally, not move. It does not actually perform heroics. Still, it mesmerizes the lens of the camera, much more so than any action of the British climbers out to score a clean victory after the mess of the First World War. If Romanticism invented modern interiority—that is, the “authentic” self—then sublime nature was its double: terrific, distant, dangerous, and utterly appealing. A heroic creation of culture.
Noel’s documentary chronicles the British attempt to win the “third pole” (both the South and the North having been frustratingly denied them earlier by the upstart nations of Norway and the USA), which ended in the death of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine close to the summit. But the members of the British expedition are not engaged in a conversation with nature, and the documentary does not, in the mode of Robert J. Flaherty, show the interplay between the human and its environment. There is, on one side, the expedition with all its bellic metaphors of seeking victory against the unconquered mountain, and, on the other, Everest itself in grand isolation. Everest is not an abode or an Olympus of the gods, but something decidedly god-like. Noel has the peak constantly in his pathfinder, awe-struck in front of its majestic presence.
That Everest is “more than the rock of which she is built” (underscoring Christian idealism through the reference to the apostle Peter) is evident throughout the film. As such she is an inspiration for mankind to find its mysterious surplus. A call to venture beyond the known, do the impossible, fulfill in action the destiny that cannot be described in words. Noel managed a distillation of deistic idealism through his portrayal of Everest, “the world’s great lodestone of romance”—a feat in many ways more impressive than the near success of tweed-clad tie-wearing British explorers. It is for this reason that the film so easily escapes from its imperial context. That is, as long as Noel keeps focus on Everest. The parts describing the trek to the mountain with its dilettantish gentleman anthropology tells another story, and one better forgotten.
The snow of the Himalayas is, according to the over hundred intertitles that weave this epic, “eternal.” Its giant peaks constitute “heavenly realms.” Noel has no problem to accept the Tibetan nomination of the highest of peaks as divine. It has a “sacred character”, we read, and observe, “What a terrifying thing it is!” All this might seem lyrical to the point of overwrought poetry, but the lasting legacy of The Epic of Everest is how Noel approached his ungraspable subject with a clear conviction of being able to conquer it. And here the actual climbing of Mallory and Irving appears more and more like a side-story. Noel was going to triumph over Everest with the latest technology.
The expedition is an “army” of five hundred men and animals and its greatest weapon is Noel’s long-range “high-powered” telephoto lens, which would cut the distance between the cumbersome cinematographic equipment and the elusive and god-like subject. The end of the documentary is dominated by shots taken with this lens. The mountain appears in a round frame as though it would be through the telescope’s eye. One is here reminded of the fabled origins of cinematic art in the guise of Georges Méliès’s moon (in Le voyage dans la lune from 1902, a film that plays on the theme of a telescope-cannon-camera). It is thus distance that is to be conquered, both between the audience and the expedition, but maybe primarily between man and the impossibly distant. Noel proudly informs the viewer that one of his shots is “the longest distance photograph of its kind ever taken in the world.”
The Epic of Everest could equally well have been entitled The Epic of a Telephoto Lens. The cinematographic technology performs heroics in the sense of going beyond the limits of man’s endurance (Mallory and Irvine famously did not, or died in the attempt), though the quest to conquer distance is chimerical. Noel’s spectacular long-range images underline distance at the same time as overcoming it. Thus the lens functions much in the same way as the small video cameras left to their own devices to record impossible angles in Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s celebrated Leviathan (2012). Both documentaries belong to the same genre describing a technological gaze on nature that cannot be merely subsumed under a concept of the prosthetic. What we are seeing is something more than the camera replacing our eyes. And this radically new gaze is itself the truly wondrous and sublime realm.
Noel’s documentary ends with images of mountainous landscapes and intertitles full with meandering pontifications about man (“so little”) returning in death to nature (“so immense!”) before eulogizing the sacrifice of those that found a grave in the “pure white snow”. This very image of tiny man and large nature, the same as produced by the telephoto lens, is a particularly cinematographic vision. Man has passed from foreground to background in the new technological gaze, he is no longer an observer of the sublime but an ant-like participant in it. Here the equipment takes the place in the seemingly impossible middle territory between the known and the unknown, at least in so far as physical nature is concerned. Seen in this way, The Epic of Everest is eminently topical and worth being studied for more than its dusty imperial historical context or its, not negligible, aesthetic value. This film about nature has much to say to us about how our imagination is constructed through artificial means.
Axel Andersson is a writer, critic, and historian from Sweden. His works often deal with the intersection of cultural history and media theory. He is the author of A Hero for the Atomic Age: Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition (2010).
The Epic of Everest was restored and released on Blu-ray and DVD by BFI.