Everest: whose epic is it anyway?

Monday, 27 January 2014

All those involved in the restoration and release of Captain John Noel’s The Epic of Everest deserve great credit. It’s a valuable contribution to mountaineering heritage boosted by a haunting score from Simon Fisher Turner.

If you missed seeing it during the film’s limited cinema release you can now get it on DVD with a wealth of extras. I’ll review the film in due course, but it’s the extras that prompted this blog.

These include interviews with Fisher Turner and those involved in the restoration of the film; an introduction from Sandra Noel and an essay about it culled from Wade Davis’s widely praised history Into the Silence.


I don’t know why I thought otherwise – perhaps it’s because I’m a climber – but it became immediately obvious to me that the driving interest in this project wasn’t the historical significance of the film but its artistic achievement.

This occurred to me first watching Fisher Turner talk about scenes from the film, particularly some footage of Howard Somervell sketching Tibetans. The composer, whose score replaced one Somervell himself helped write, didn’t know which climber he was looking at and, reasonably enough, hadn’t felt the need to find out. Why should he? It’s the film he was looking at, and his responses to that film, not what it told him about the history of climbing Everest.

What Everest means as an idea in the public imagination is a far more potent draw than the mountain’s history as a climbing challenge, an impression emphasised in Noel’s film by the simple fact that there are so few climbing scenes. The climbers are extras; the star is the mountain. (This may not have been Noel's intention of course; he wanted footage shot by Mallory and Irvine of each other on the summit.)

For the general public, Everest was long ago swept up by the same cultural juggernaut that carries Scott, Shackleton and their attempts at reaching the South Pole. It is a prism through which to view society in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. The climbing is simply incidental.

Ditto the local culture. Fisher Turner refers to the climbers meeting the Dalai Lama at Rongbuk monastery. It isn’t of course; the lama in question is Dzatrul Rinpoche, whose cultural impact on the people around Everest, both in Nepal and Tibet, was arguably greater than that of any other local figure in the twentieth century with the possible exception of Tenzing Norgay. If you watch this scene closely, you can see the reverence with which the expedition’s Sherpa and Bhotia porters approach him.

There are dangers in this elevation of the Everest myth. In his introduction Wade Davis recounts how John Noel brought a group of Tibetan monks to London to add local spice to the show he’d worked up around the film. The presence of these monks caused a diplomatic spat, dubbed ‘the affair of the dancing lamas’, which may, or may not, have led to a suspension of access to Everest.

Davis also suggests that the affair undermined efforts being made by the thirteenth Dalai Lama to reform the medieval Tibetan state, reforms which may have held by the tide of Mao’s armies when they invaded in 1950.

Poor old John Noel. No summit shot, and now he’s getting the blame for the destruction of the Tibetan people.

Of course, it’s a wildly overblown conclusion. The British have many charges to answer in their relations with pre-invasion Tibet and how these impacted on the thinking of Chinese strategists. But John Noel’s film isn’t one of them.*

Given the status Everest now holds, it’s understandable that great claims are made for its significance and impact, but its story changes to fit whatever circumstances are current. In the 1990s, it was the rise of the super-rich, who could buy Everest. In this centenary year of the Great War, the story has been bent to fit the narrative of national sacrifice.

If you’ve got a theory, Everest is a big enough billboard to display it.

Anyway, I recommend the film and I’m pleased to say that Howard Somervell’s Nepali and Tibetan ‘airs’ so carefully transcribed and then arranged by C M Smith-Dodsworth are included.

But no matter how much I admire Somervell, I’m very glad the BFI commissioned Simon Fisher Turner to write new music. It’s beautiful and thought-provoking -- and more in keeping with the mountain.

(*The role of Frederick Marshman Bailey, the last Great Gamer and political agent in Sikkim and Tibet in the 1920s, in keeping the Mount Everest Committee out of Tibet is an under-researched subject.)



Posted by Ed Douglas at 3.59 PM