From classic silents like The Epic of Everest and The Great White Silence, to more recent fare like First Ascent, documentaries about conquering mountains have long been a fascinating subgenre. The Conquest of Everest is one of the best examples; a BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated 1953 documentary detailing the first successful attempt to reach the peak of the mountain earlier that year.
The successful expedition was the 11th attempt made to reach the summit of the over 29,000ft high mountain in 30 years, and news of the success made the British newspaper front pages on 2 June 1953, the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation. It’s this monumental day that opens the documentary as we are met with footage of the Queen’s coronation in front of cheering crowds, before we see the expedition crew returning to equally rapturous celebrations following their descent from Everest.
Narrated by character actor Meredith Edwards (and some of the expedition crew), the documentary provides a brief overview of Everest (including how it got its name), and previous attempts to reach its summit (accompanied by excellent silent black and white footage from the 1922 and 1924 expeditions) – useful context for how the 1953 party learnt from these earlier attempts.
The key players are then introduced, including Sir Edmund Hillary, Wilfred Noyce and Tenzing Norgay, with much of the rest of the first half detailing the plans for the route, the preparation and training needed to acclimatise to the altitude and lack of oxygen, and the well over 100 mile trek from Kathmandu to base camp at the foot of Everest.
The second half is the meat of the tale, the ascent to the top of Everest which becomes a gripping race against time as the expedition party struggles to get to the South Col, used as a base camp for the final push to the summit, never mind the summit itself. Whilst those watching will likely know the outcome – the title is a bit of a giveaway – this footage, and the way it’s edited, does leave some doubt as to whether they will succeed.
It’s a remarkable documentary which features some excellent footage and phenomenal cinematography to bring the expedition to vivid life. Sound, outside of narration and the rousing score by Arthur Benjamin, is used sporadically but brilliantly – the sound of wind against footage of mountains is eerie and almost horror-like, and showcases how ominous and scary it may have been at times in such harsh and remote conditions.
In closing, I really enjoyed the film, particularly the cinematography and use of sound. It’s an important historical document, and not only features some breath-taking footage, but some interesting stories that not only shine a light on the expedition and how the summit was successfully reached, but also on some of the key players and unsung heroes.
The Conquest of Everest is released on Blu-ray, DVD and digital on StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics label on 29 May 2023 – the same date the expedition party reached the summit 70 years earlier. I reviewed the Blu-ray edition, which features an excellent transfer. The technicolour shines, with the colours really popping from the screen. It’s a fabulous restoration which is virtually blemish-free throughout, just the odd line or dip in quality for the occasional climbing scene as the expedition nears the summit. They’re very, very minor blemishes though and overall the picture quality is fantastic. Audio is also first-rate, with very clear and crisp dialogue, and really showcasing the score by Arthur Benjamin.
– British Entertainment History Project (BEHP) interview with producer John Taylor (1988)
– The Conquest of Everest Premiere (1953)
It’s a small selection of special features for this 70th anniversary release, but both are worthwhile and enhance the overall experience of the documentary.
The BEHP interview plays for 15 minutes over a high definition film poster, and is an extract from a longer interview with producer Taylor. I’ve enjoyed BEHP interviews on other blu-rays, and this one is no different. It’s an easy listen with some anecdotal gems, including stories of how the funding for the film was secured, and details of two of the cameramen; one of whom, Thomas Stobart, fell ill early in the expedition with little footage filmed, leading to George Lowe, Hillary’s climbing partner, taking over as director and returning with dozens of magazines of footage. The other cameraman discussed is George Lowe, described by Taylor as not being a very experienced cameraman, but that doesn’t show with the quality of footage he captured.
The premiere footage runs for one minute, and is a narrated newsreel from the Royal premiere, which follows the Queen and Prince Philip as they meet some of the expedition crew, and see and hear about some of the equipment used to conquer Everest. It’s a short but valuable extra.
So whilst the special features may be light, the quality of the documentary and the excellent restoration make this easy to recommend for documentary fans.