Life and death at the top - The Epic of Everest

Simon Fisher Turner has put music to the 1924 film of a doomed attempt to climb Everest , writes Richard Fitzpatrick.

FOR a moment in the 1924 documentary, The Epic of Everest, the camera rests on seven of the men who led the expedition, including George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, who would die a few hundred metres from the summit, having, as the film’s narration breathlessly notes, come “nearer to God than men had ever reached before”.The men look jolly. One of them jigs on the spot to keep warm. Some of them wear plus-fours, fashionable for the day, although their clothes and caps look ragged, almost threadbare. A few smoke pipes.

It is not the British adventurers, however, who captivate, but the “unutterably lonely” mountain they tried to conquer.

Simon Fisher Turner, who was commissioned to write the score for the re-mastered film, following his acclaimed work on The Great White Silence, also preferred the mountain and anthropological scenes in The Epic of Everest.

“I loved all the farmers and the Tibetans, the family life from a humanistic point of view. But when you get up into the mountains, high up into the Himalayas, just the sheer beauty of the thing is mind-boggling. I loved the natural aspect to it. I was less interested in seeing men reading maps, and more interested in seeing what the landscape looked like in that period.

“But also, there was sad sad footage of seeing some of the men for the last time climbing, when they were tiny little dots. A lot of it is very moving.”

The film, which will be shown tomorrow as part of the Kerry Film Festival, has been restored from nitrate positives held in the vaults of the British Film Institute. Turner’s musical sound — he has acted in films, such as Michael Winner’s version of The Big Sleep and Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair, as well as being a band member of The The — is subtle, a mix of brooding and dream-like.

He avoids the bombastic flourishes that would have been too easy given the expedition was one of the last forays of a great age of adventure, a third attempt to conquer what the film’s narration boldly protests is “a mountain that acknowledges supremacy in no other on this Earth”.

The caravan of men on the trek numbered 500, excluding animals, and a donkey born en route that had to walk 22 miles up an icy mountain on its first day of life. Their camps had forbidding names like Snowfield and Ice Field. They were hardy souls, particularly the convoy’s 60 Sherpas, who did the expedition’s heavy lifting.

Turner says that the expedition’s officer class were also a tough cohort. “The thing we have to remember was that every one of the British, except for Irvine, who was the youngest guy at 22 years of age, had been in the trenches in the First World War. They knew about death from close quarters.

“To them, going up Mount Everest was a doddle. It was: ‘Man, listen, we have seen hell; this is not a problem. I’m just going to put on my corduroys and silk pants and pull a woollen sweater over my head and climb the mountain, because I’ve been in the trenches’. There was a British stubbornness that ‘We must go on for king and country’. It was an attitude of how you did things, if you were a gentleman.”

The film captivatingly lingers on the men, some gripping trekking poles as they amble slowly up the mountain like a trail of ants, against a backdrop of clouds that sweep across them overhead. The exuberance of the director, Captain John Noel, seeps through, his wonder at the new-fangled technology at his disposal, including a travelling dark room and a “high-powered telescopic lens” that captured action from a distance of two miles away.

Captain Noel, who also served in the First World War, was quite a character. He died in 1989, aged 99. He envisaged making a financial killing from The Epic of Everest, but the film had a mixed reception, says Turner.“He brought over about five or six lamas, Tibetan monks, and they did a show at the Scarlett Cinema in King’s Cross in London, and it was seen by lots of people. He turned it into an almost Barnum & Bailey freak show. That upset the Tibetan consulate.

“The show finished in London and went around America. It was seen by millions of people, apparently, but it was never quite the big commercial success Noel thought it would be if they had actually climbed to the top and succeeded. The fact that the expedition failed meant he had to make a show out of a failure somehow,” says Turner.

“When they did the show in London, they had original music written by one of the climbers, called Howard Somerfield. He was a naturalist as well. They turned this raw footage into this variety show almost, and that upset everybody.They had musicians and the lamas playing those long, deep horns that went ‘baaaah’. They were trying to recreate a Himalayan scene with the mountains and monasteries. They built sets with trees. It was quite an event, but it did sour relations for some time between the British government and Tibet,” says Turner.

The Epic of Everest will be screened at the Kerry Film Festival, at Cinema Killarney, tomorrow at 7.30pm .



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