Virgil Films // 2011 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // March 20th, 2011
"Because it's there." -- George Mallory
"God, what am I doing?" -- Conrad Ankers
On June 7, 1924, British climbers George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were seen approximately eight hundred feet from the top of Mount Everest. The pair were near the foot of the "Second Step," a hundred foot rock face -- the last major obstacle between them and immortality. Shortly after teammate Noel Odell spotted them from their campsite at 26,000 feet, clouds closed in over the mountain. Mallory and Irvine were never seen again.
In 1999, Mallory's body was discovered by American climber Conrad Ankers, at an altitude of 26,570 feet. Mallory's body and clothing were in relatively good shape; many of his personal effects were recovered -- goggles, watch, altimeter, etc. -- with one notable exception: A picture of his wife, Ruth, was nowhere to be found. Mallory had promised his wife that he would leave the picture on the summit, so the picture's absence raised an intriguing possibility: Could it be that Mallory conquered Everest twenty-nine years before Sir Edmund Hilary, only to fall to his death while returning from his victory?
The question haunted Ankers. In 2007, he led the Altitude Everest Expedition to try and find some answers. While there was no way to determine if Mallory and Irvine made it, Ankers could determine if it was feasible that they made it. To do that he would have to make the climb himself, taking Mallory's Northern Route (Hillary conquered Everest from the south), eschewing most modern climbing gear. Most importantly, Ankers would also have to do a free ascent of the Second Step. No one had ever scaled the face without rope or even more advanced equipment, and even then, the Second Step wasn't overcome until 1960 -- it is so daunting an obstacle that in 1977, Chinese climbers attached a fifteen foot ladder. Ankers would have the ladder removed before hitting the face. (Consider, if you will, the absurd incongruity of using a fifteen foot ladder in conquering a 29,000 foot mountain -- a ladder that spans .0005 percent of the mountain's altitude.)
The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest follows two climbers -- George Mallory and Conrad Ankers -- as their destinies become intertwined, combining archival footage and stills along with footage shot during Ankers' attempt to follow Mallory's route.
The movie stumbles a bit out of the gate by overplaying the parallels between Mallory and Ankers. The narration by Liam Neeson, with additional voice work by Hugh Dancy (reading from Mallory's letters) and Natasha Richardson (reading from Ruth Mallory's letters -- her last performance before her untimely death in 2009) captures the couple's passion for one another and George's passion for climbing. The clips of Ankers and his family come across a bit forced. That said, they also produce a wonderfully horrible moment. Ankers comes into the kitchen wearing the same sort of climbing clothes that Mallory wore, and asks his young (8-9 yrs old?) stepson, "Would you climb Everest wearing this?" To which the lad -- whose father was killed in a climbing accident -- replies in a small voice, "I wouldn't climb Everest." If you look up "awkward" in a thesaurus, you may well find a link to this clip.
The climbing sections of the film are on much firmer footing; balancing Ankers' progress against what is known of Mallory's final expedition works well. With the exception of the ascent of the Second Step, the coverage of Ankers' climb somehow does not quite capture the enormity of the challenge -- it's as though the altitude and the Second Step are the only real hurdles. Everything else is just trudging up a hill.
The screener disc didn't have the finished video or audio tracks, so I can't comment on the technical aspects of the disc. In general, the non-anamorphic screener transfer looked pretty good; the climb was shot on IMAX, so the finished image should be spectacular. (For the record: If it takes a special type of courage to climb a mountain, it takes courage of an additional order of magnitude to haul an IMAX camera up Mount Freaking Everest to film said climber. Sweet Mother of Christ.) The screener didn't have the extras, but you get raw interview footage from which parts of the film were assembled, notes written by Noel Odell during the 1924 expedition, and information on the Khumba Climbing Centre, a training school in Nepal for Nepali climbers and high altitude workers (Conrad Ankers is the program director).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Virgil Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Wikipedia: George Mallory
* Altitude Everest Expedition site
* PBS' NOVA: Lost on Everest