An image from “The Epic of Everest,” listed on EBay for $9.99.
Britain ruled the seas and world in the early 20th century, organizing expeditions to forlorn and distant lands like the poles and Mt. Everest to show British might and prestige in conquering nature and the unknown. Adventurous explorers like Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton set off to Antarctica in hopes of being the first to find and reach the South Pole. They planned filmic records of their journeys, both to pay for the travels and to demonstrate man’s superiority over nature. In the process, these motion pictures revealed the ingenuity and toughness of filmmakers shooting for the first time in some of the most brutal places on Earth.
Like filmmakers Frank Hurley and Sir Herbert Ponting before him, Capt. John F. B. Noel planned to capture personable, every day moments of the Royal Geographic Society’s 1924 journey to summit Everest, along with the great glory of showing British explorers conquering the unknown. Unfortunately, Noel’s “The Epic of Everest” matched Hurley’s “Endurance” and Ponting’s “The Great White Silence,” in becoming moving memorials documenting the great endurance and defeat of brave, courageous men by the overwhelming forces of nature, instead of the triumphal tour de forces they were intended to be.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
“The Epic of Everest” will be shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on May 31.
Noel served as filmmaker/photographer for the Royal Geographic Society/Alpine Club of Great Britain’s second attempt at scaling Mt. Everest in 1922. When that failed, he acquired all commercial photographic/film rights to the 1924 journey, financing the expedition in hopes of striking it rich showing the film to packed houses throughout the world following the expedition.
The Royal Geographic Society and Alpine Club had organized the Mt. Everest Committee to round up Britain’s best-regarded mountain climbers like George Herbert Leigh Mallory in 1920 to explore and map the undiscovered (by western explorers) Mt. Everest. The group returned in 1922, hoping to scale the peak known as the “Goddess Mother of the World” by its Tibetan neighbors. When that expedition faltered, the organizations spent two years planning what they hoped would be a successful ascent of Mt. Everest by the world’s most advanced mountain climbing team.
In April 1924, 12 trained men set off from Great Britain to the Himalaya peaks, including Mallory, Andrew Irvine, Noel Odell, Capt. John Noel and Howard Somervell, all armed with oxygen tanks and the world’s finest climbing gear and equipment, including parkas and wool tweed climbing suits. The relatively young, ambitious, and self-confident Mallory was considered one of the best, if not the top, mountain climbing experts in the world, and reportedly uttering the words, “Because it is there,” when asked why he wanted to conquer Everest.
Mallory discovered the most accessible route to the summit from the north side of the mountain in 1922, as the southern route through Nepal was considered off-limits to westerners. He described the most difficult part of that route to author Francis Younghusband in his book, “The Epic of Mount Everest,” combining the stories of the three expeditions: “It was a wall and slope of ice and snow, seared with crevasses and liable to avalanche… .” In fact, Mallory would survive harsh weather conditions, physical exhaustion and the dangerous mountain in his first two attempts at scaling Everest.
In 1924, Mallory devised the plan of how to attack the mountain and divided the team into pairings, each of which would earn attempts at climbing the mountain. During their weeks of setting up camps, acclimating, and starting to climb, the men suffered from the frigid cold, harsh conditions and searing coughs and throat problems, including surviving an avalanche at a base camp, which killed 12 sherpas. As Younghusband describes Mallory in his book, “He was absolutely possessed with the idea of climbing Mt. Everest. Climbing Everest was no incident in his life. He had made it his whole life.” He possessed “…the imagination of the artist who cannot leave his work until it is completely, neatly, and perfectly finished. Mallory was himself the very embodiment of the “Everest spirit.”
During this expedition, filmmaker/photographer John Noel devised ingenious methods of shooting and processing films in the freezing altitudes, employing strong telephoto lenses to capture the men from great distances as they skillfully and carefully traversed the summit peaks. Noel would later relate in 1927 lectures how he climbed over 23,000 square feet carrying four cameras, tripods, film, plates, developing tanks, and steel cases. He developed film and prints at night at 16,000 feet, though every contact brought a spark, and washed it until morning, drying for two hours after sunup before printing. Porters rushed the film to Darjeeling, India, for final processing and transportation to England. The New York Times reported on Dec. 28, 1924, that the expedition began with 14 cameras of all shapes and sizes, describing the special packs and batteries created for their small size and the extreme cold and dangerous weather conditions.
Around midday, June 8, 1924, team member Noel Odelle spied Mallory and Irvine ascending the mountain, only 800 feet below the summit, but behind the time Mallory said they would reach this spot. “The clouds parted. The whole summit ridge and final pyramid was unveiled.” Odelle spotted two small figures approaching the rock step and climbing it, then the clouds enveloped the scene. Mallory and Irvine were never seen again, and much conjecture continues to this day on whether they reached the summit. After two days, the team realized they were lost, and began the slow trek back to England.
In 1999, Mallory’s body was discovered on a slope below, with goggles and paper in his pockets. He had written his wife that he would leave her photo atop the summit, but no image was found in his pockets.
On Oct. 17, 1924, an emotional memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral rallied the country, attended by King George, the queen, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, and other celebrities, recognizing the bravery of the two men.
Noel’s “The Epic of Everest” screened on Dec. 15, 1924, and the Dec. 24 Daily Variety relayed part of the London Times review, noting the film was shot using telephoto lens, and stating, “Such scenery and awesome grandeur have never before been ‘shot’ by a cameraman.” The Feb. 12, 1925, Daily Variety ran another review, stating that the film should be shortened and needed more personal elements. It did note that “The Epic of Everest” was one of the earliest filmed records of Tibetan life.
The film disappeared from American theaters until Saturday, April 24, through Monday, April 26, 1925, when “The Epic of Everest” screened at the George Eastman House as part of a Noel lecture titled, “On the Roof of the World, with Capt. Noel and His Altitude Everest Motion Picture,” the first U. S. screening. Louis J. Alber of Cleveland arranged Noel’s talk about the “unconquerable mountain.”
The flyer for the evening noted that Noel’s film documented the attempt to climb Everest and captured the first images of “the people, customs and country of Quaint Tibet.” Describing the film as one of the most gripping and dramatic stories ever told, its hyperbolic prose calls the mountain, “Everest – the Roof of the World! Everest – the majestic – whose skies caress the ice and snow; where zero gales sweep by a hundred miles an hour; where man so far, has proved himself a giant among his fellow men – yet a feeble ant in the giant Plan of things.”
“The Epic of Everest” returned to America in 1926 when it played at the American Museum of Natural History, Dec. 23, 1926, after a lecture by Noel. Soon after, Younghusband updated and combined the stories of the three expeditions into the book, “The Epic of Mount Everest,” reviewed by the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 13, 1927.
In late March-early April 1927, “The Epic of Everest” accompanied Noel’s lecture on the Everest expeditions at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse, where he described in detail how he transported his photographic/film equipment and processed his film. He noted to the audience that he felt his task in 1924 was to convey the ethereal, haunting beauty and majesty of Everest.
While none of these great expeditions by British explorers reached their final destinations, the three wonderful cameramen documented incredible journeys by fearless adventurers, recording some of the most moving and dramatic stories ever put on film.
Eighty-seven years later, Noel’s “The Epic of Everest” screens Saturday, May 31, 2014, at 2 p.m. as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, with Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius accompanying the film. Like Ponting’s “The Great White Silence,” “The Epic of Everest” promises majestic shots of natural landscapes accompanied by moving images of heroic explorers pushed to the limits of human endurance.