Destination Everest: Baruch Professor Explores Epic Expedition Films in Film History
July 28, 2020
In a time heavy with constraints due to the global pandemic, traveling back to the early 20th century to learn about epic mountaineering expeditions may offer a much-needed escape.
Professor Alison Griffiths in the Weissman School of Arts & Sciences, who was awarded a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship and named a CUNY Distinguished Professor of Film and Media Studies last year, examines the first two feature length films ever made on Mount Everest—the 1922 film Climbing Mount Everest and the 1924 The Epic of Everest—in a new article published in Film History (Volume 32, No. 1, Spring 2020).
“Cinema in Extremis: Mount Everest and the Poetics of Monumentality” examines both films which documented the 1922 and 1924 expeditions to reach the summit of Everest, the world’s highest mountain above sea level—both of which failed.
“Monumental Geography” and Cinematic Possibilities
The films tell the fascinating story of movie footage shot at high altitude, while highlighting themes of national pride and monumentality. Co-sponsored by Britain’s Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club, the 1922 and 1924 expeditions were led by famed British explorer George Mallory, 38, and his climbing partner on the 1924 expedition final summit attempt, 22-year-old Andrew Irvine.
In her article, Professor Griffiths argues that Everest’s “monumental geography and the stresses of climbing and filming at extreme altitudes paradoxically both constrain and open up possibilities for cinema.” She characterizes both the 1922 and 1924 expeditions as “minimonuments in motion” and “minispectacles” that engendered both suspicion and amusement among the indigenous people of Tibet who served as guides and porters for members of the climbing party.
1924 Expedition Marked by Tragedy
According to Griffiths, The Epic of Everest was filmed during the ill-fated expedition of 1924 during which Mallory and Irvine went missing and died on the mountain. Historians still don’t know for certain whether they reached the summit.
Mallory and Irvine’s disappearances became one of the most persistent mysteries of the 20th century. In 1999, 75 years after the pair went missing, Mallory’s remains were discovered, largely intact, by the BBC’s Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition. Irvine’s remains are yet to be found.
Everest Continues to Captivate
Historically, Mount Everest has been shrouded in mystery and intrigue and, even today, captures the imagination of people around the world. Last year marked the deadliest climbing season as 11 people died on Everest, mostly on their way down the mountain, and a record number of climbers attempted the trek. Video and photographs in 2019 revealed traffic jams of climbers waiting in long lines to advance up the mountain and between base camps. Everest caught a rare break this year as the climbing season was closed due to the coronavirus.
Next year, the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first British attempt in 1921 to summit Everest.
WATCH VIDEO: Professor Griffiths explain her interest in “films use in the most unlikely of places.”
Learn More: Six Questions for Professor Griffiths
What inspired you to study these early expedition films?
As a film historian, I’m interested in the challenge Everest posed to cinema, and using the idea of monumentality in terms of this being a monumental feat to film at such high altitude. How do you capture the scale and breathtaking scenery, and try to exist at the high altitude? How do you position the camera safely, how do you capture the movement between camps, and how do you turn that into a sense of drama especially when you don’t know what the outcome will be?
They had to decide what to film. When Captain John Noel, the official photographer of the 1922 and 1924 expeditions sent back photographs and film, the British sponsors said they wanted more drama and to see more climbing. It’s challenging to do that. The 1924 film has amazing footage; it used color filters (red and blue) to capture the vastness of the space.
These films were largely forgotten until about 2013 when the British Film Institute collaborated to restore and redistribute the 1924 Epic of Everest film. No one had really thought much about the visual output of these expeditions until the film was restored.
For the British, there was a huge amount of national pride at stake. The Brits had failed to reach the North and South Pole. It was the era of great exploration. Mountaineering was hugely popular in Britain and there was a great amount of public interest.
The expedition film genre is unusual, what continues to fascinate you about it?
I wanted to look at the very detailed history surrounding the use of film in expeditions. The expedition film genre is largely forgotten and poorly understood, but it’s still an important part of exploration. These films were tied to prestigious organizations that are still around.
I’m driven by gaining a deeper understanding of what might happen when you turn the camera on. What’s interesting, what to shoot and what not to? What subjects or people do you focus on? What can film empirically prove? What happens when brain fog and disorientation set in?
Was there any empirical proof that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit before they died?
George Mallory’s body was found in the 1999 expedition which was made into a documentary. One theory is that Mallory and Irvine died on the way up to the summit. They reached 26,000 feet. The summit is at 29,029 feet. However, we don’t know whether they died on the way up or the way down.
Mallory had a Kodak pocket camera with him so there might have been photographic evidence. But when the 1999 expedition party discovered the body, it didn’t find the film to prove Mallory and Irvine had summited. Mallory always kept a photograph of his wife with him and it was missing.
At the end of 1924 expedition, a mini monument to Mallory, Irvine, and the climbers who died in the 1922 expedition was built. The group did not find Irvine’s body despite extensive searching. It deduced that Mallory had fallen and broken a bone in his ankle and didn’t die on impact.
Why do people continue to be drawn to climbing Everest?
There is something incredibly alluring about Everest, of the extreme that can be within the realm of the attainable. And if you have the right amount of money, it’s not out of the range of the doable. The climbing industry relies on the tourist industry. In 2019, the Nepalese government issued 381 climbing permits, the most ever. For a few weeks in May 2019, there were too many teams and too many delays.
What can today’s audiences learn from these films?
Two-thirds of these films show footage of the Nepalese and Tibetan people. As such, they are extraordinary visual and archival documents that chronicle the cultural history of these people, and the very beginnings of the Sherpa guide industry. The 1924 film shows Sherpas searching for Mallory and Irvine. These films are also among some of the earliest moving pictures ever shot in this region. There was a tension between geography and entertainment, even then.
Of course audiences see Everest’s beauty and its spirituality. And in later films, the debris field and human bodies. Climate change has accelerated melt and so the layered history of climbing has become visible.
How do you see the expedition film genre evolving in the future?
I’m think about how cinema was enlisted as a tool of data collection. We will record what we find with an expectation that the content could be turned into popular entertainment. We will see more visual diaries which is a different yet overlapping use of cinema in the field of exploration. And Everest VR [virtual reality] already exists.
As humans, we tend to record our behaviors in moments of crisis and when we’re stressed to the limits. Everest stresses the human body and cinema to the extreme. Neither can function well in that environment.
The online version of Professor Griffith’s article is available to students and faculty through Newman Library on Project Muse.
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