Oct 07 2007

The Conquest of Everest (Movie)

Published by at 9:49 am under Books & Movies

This incredible film is the original 1953 documentary of the Hillary/Norgay team’s ascent of Everest. I hadn’t realized the expedition had been documented in movie form, and found out only by accident when I discovered it hiding on Side B of the Into the Thin Air of Everest DVD.

The beginning is inauspicious: a classic propaganda film [produced by Countryman Films] with waving Union Jacks and the newly coronated Queen Elizabeth buoyed down the avenue in a carriage borne by those fuzzy-topped marching dudes. Soon, though, patriotism fades to the back as the real story begins.

I think the most powerful thing is the pace. It’s slow. It’s tedious. It’s anything but romantic: the antithesis of its methamphetamine-driven counterpart, Into the Thin Air of Everest. In The Conquest of Everest, the interminable scenes of treacherous crawls over crevasses, vicious winds, backbreaking efforts to axe steps into the ice, life-threatening effects of altitude on breathing and movement … all capture the unrelenting brutality of the experience. Subsequent expeditions have been made much easier because of work done on this trip.

Oddly, I also understand a little more why these people put themselves in such danger and misery to climb a mountain … and the rewards afterward, for those who survive.

Another great thing about the movie is that every phase of the journey is chronicled, from the moment team members first meet to the preparation and testing of climbing equipment to the long trek to base camp to the actual ascent.

I recognized a lot of the scenes that have been excerpted for contemporary documentaries, and what was really fun was seeing the footage that those films leave on the cutting room floor: children and wives of porters watching as the men start up the trail, oceans of rhododendrons, close-ups of glacial rivers, passing flocks of birds… some of the best stuff, if you ask me.

The route they took to Everest Base Camp is roughly the same as what we’re planning if my goddamn foot gets better in the next few minutes, so that was of particular interest to me. Also amazing to see the base camp looking virginal, not yet littered with empty oxygen tanks and whoknowswhatall, as today’s guidebooks show.

Oh, and finally … the music: violins mark the touching moments, while deep brasses sound danger, like the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz. Wonderful!

The unsung hero of this documentary (well, aside from all the Sherpa porters) is the filmmaker, Thomas Stobart, who — invisible to us — endured inhuman conditions, and whose work took patience, courage and a creative eye.

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