Restored and revived: ‘The Epic of Everest,’ the first film cameras up Everest, and ‘Summer Children’

The Epic of Everest (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), the film record of the third British ascent of Everest, was an event in itself in 1924. Its restoration is almost as much an event. Unavailable for years, with elements in the BFI film vault waiting for years to be resurrected, the restoration was completed and unveiled in 2011.

Presented with a solemnity befitting the gravity of the event (two of the greatest and most celebrated climbers of the day, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, died trying to reach the peak), it’s also as beautiful a nonfiction film you’ll see from the era. Captain John Noel hauled a hand-cranked camera (developed specifically for the challenge of shooting in the snow and ice) along with the expedition party (of 500 men and animals, according to the titles) and captured truly astounding images. He brought state-of-the-art telephoto lenses which enabled him to get viable images from as far away as two miles. But he also brought art and aesthetics to his shots, many of them like landscape portraits alive with passing clouds, shifting shadows, and halos of snow and mist whipped up by the winds. They are framed beautifully and use the light and shadow as dramatic elements.

Part travelogue, part ethnographic record, part historical document, and part adventure documentary, it is structured as a narrative without any recourse to contriving a dramatic spine. A lot of documentaries of the silent era leaned on staged scenes and dramatic recreations and called upon its subjects to play the part rather than simply be. There are no such narrative contrivances here. Noel picks dramatic vantage points with which to observe the expedition party—most of the shots are from afar, placing the men against the majesty of the mountain peak or the dangers of the immediate challenge—and photographs the camp as if recording the details for the historical record.

‘The Epic of Everest’

There’s definitely a strain of national pride as the representatives of western civilization trek into the primitive wilderness of Tibet, but Noel treats the project as an exploration more than a celebration. In addition to chronicling the expedition, he presents the earliest film footage of traditional Tibetan people living in the mountains, a light ethnographic introduction to this culture cut off from world. And the titles border on poetry. Chomo-Lung-Ma is what the Himalayan people call Everest: Goddess Mother of the World. Between the grandeur and visual drama of the living still life shots of the mountain and the Tibetan belief in a spirit beyond nature in this exotic land, Noel adds suggestion of a supernatural power behind the natural danger. It makes for a record of an event presented with power and poetry as well as the famed sober stiff-upper-lip attitude of the British in the face of defeat.

Original elements from the film have been in the BFI Film Archive for over 50 years and this restoration has gone back to every existing element and print available to the restorers, restoring original tints and titles and getting the best image possible.

The Blu-ray and DVD debuts both include three featurettes produced by the BFI. “Introducing The Epic of Everest” offers background on the filmmaker, the origins of the project, and the challenges of the production. Composer Simon Fisher Turner explains his unconventional choice of soundtrack in “Scoring The Epic of Everest” (“I’m not trying to be genuine, I’m just trying to give you the room to imagine more.”). “Restoring The Epic of Everest” is self-explanatory. Together the run about 25 minutes.

Also available to stream for Netflix and Fandor subscribers (without supplements).

Produced in 1965 and then shelved, Summer Children (Robinette Productions, DVD) was long thought lost until producer Jack Robinette and film restorer Edie Robinette-Petrachi found the original negative in the early 2000s and sound elements and prints soon after. The restored film premiered in 2011 and revealed an unusual piece of Americana, a mix of alienated youth drama, rock and roll picture, and introspective art cinema. Brooding rich kid West (Stuart Anderson) takes a group of friends on his father’s yacht for a weekend getaway to Catalina Island in time for a big dance. He is immediately taken with Diana (Valora Noland), a cousin to the group’s junior member Muffy (Steve Bobbitt) and a beautiful, cool free spirit, while his best friend Frankie (John Hanek), a cocky, competitive motorcycle racer, is determined to seduce her. Think of it as an American indie response to the beach movie in the era of the sexual revolution, directed with a sensibility influenced by John Cassavetes and the European New Wave.

Directed by James Bruner, this is American art cinema at its most serious and self-conscious. The script is filled with introspective musings and angst-ridden conflict and the performances by the three leads are stiff and arch. They are more cyphers than characters. Even the fleeting nudity feels calculatedly tossed off, a dare to censors and a show of sophistication with just a hint of exploitation. It’s also beautifully photographed in B&W by future Oscar winner Vilmos Zsigmond, who uses the natural light to create a sun-dappled texture by day and superb lighting (by future cinematography great Laszlo Kovaks) to heighten the night scenes. This is a handsome film.

More curiosity than classic, the self-serious film is something of cinematic cliché seen from our vantage point, but it’s also an intriguing time capsule of a culture and it has been beautifully restored and mastered for DVD.

The commentary by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and producer Jack Robinette is wide ranging, looking back over four decades to consider the culture of the era (social and cinematic) as well as the story of the production. There are also two deleted scenes, a short featurette, and reproductions of select script pages.

It’s released independently by Robinette Productions and available to purchase on Amazon. Also available to Prime members to stream on Amazon Instant Video (without supplements).

Available to buy:
The Epic of Everest [DVD]
The Epic of Everest [Blu-ray]
Summer Children [DVD]