In 1924, almost 30 years before the summit of Mount Everest was reached by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, British explorer George Mallory donned his gabardine climbing gear (gabardine is a kind of tightly woven wool) and hobnailed boots and set out to conquer that mountain. He was last seen alive around 800 feet from the summit.
Controversy has surrounded his death, with some people asserting that he may have actually made the summit and died coming back down, while others believe he just never made it.
Interest in Mallory’s story was reignited in 1999 when American mountaineer Conrad Anker found his frozen body deep into the ominously titled ‘death zone’ of Everest. Much of his belongings were intact, but one thing was missing: a photo of Mallory’s wife Ruth, which he had promised to place at the summit.
From this point on, Anker found himself obsessed with Mallory and his voyage – and resolved to undertake his own expedition to the summit of Everest, using the exact same route and taking with him replicas of Mallory’s equipment to test along the way. Accompanying him was British climbing prodigy Leo Houlding.
The intertwined stories of Mallory’s expedition, Anker’s expedition and the conflicting emotions brought on by the climbers’ love for the mountains and for the wives they left at home make for a somewhat clumsy narrative. Malory’s story is a fantastical one and could easily have had an entire film devoted to it, that is, if they found more than two photos of his wife and more than the one restored piece of video footage from his expedition. Repetition of these images while Liam Neeson reiterates poetic conjecture about the lure of the mountain tearing Ruth up inside does become pretty tiresome after a while.
This repetition makes the shift to Anke and his expedition a lot more interesting. Snippets into his own personal life are given equally short and uninspired treatment, however. Intriguing morsels about Anke’s former climbing partner who died during an expedition, and whose wife Anke subsequently married, brought a new dimension to a story that often lapsed into dry recounting of historical evidence. Yet sadly Anke’s story was only ever skimmed over as part of an awkward parallel to Mallory’s own family story.
Equally unfinished was the testing of Mallory’s gear by Anke and Houlding, which happens at several points during their climb. We get a quick look at them changing, discussing the various flaws in the kit as they do so, then some shots of them walking in it, then the pair rubbing their feet and marvelling at Mallory’s hardiness. I know it’s a tall order, but I would have quite enjoyed seeing them undertake a full expedition (Everest or elsewhere) in the manner of Mallory and then discuss it, rather than simply using his clothes as a short interlude to try and keep us engaged with a flagging human interest tale.
Luckily the narrative format (which I actually suspect was designed for TV screening, with frequent ad breaks justifying repeated photos and maxims) is held together by some spectacular shots of the mountainous terrain. The film is showing in IMax, and though I only watched on a standard cinema screen I can imagine that, blown up to epic proportions, this film would be a sight to behold.
Another plus point is the talent involved in the making of the film. Liam Neeson’s narration, though often hampered by some hackneyed scripting, is loaded with a gravitas that accompanies the visual splendour of the film very well. Ralph Fiennes also provides a star turn as the voice of George Mallory, which appears when his letters and conferences are read out (including the infamous response to being questioned on why he is climbing Everest: “because it’s there”), while Hugh Dancy and Alan Rickman pop up in supporting roles just to keep the star-factor high.
Overall, I can see this being a great IMax experience, or an enjoyable TV doc that offers plenty of historical intrigue with a dash of controversy and a pinch of human drama thrown in. But the layers of narrative prove too diffuse, and there is not a good enough arc to hold a cinema audience for the duration. I certainly found myself yawning when we reached 45 minutes and, by the end, ruing the missed opportunities amongst the many interesting and exciting fragments of story that are collected here.