When you’re looking out on the world from 29,000 feet—the air thin and the temperature frostbite frigid—your breath tends to get taken away. Anthony Geffen’s new larger-than-life film “The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest” is not just a breath-taking movie, another in a string of plain but glorious vanilla documentaries watching daring, and perhaps crazed, people trek up the planet’s tallest peak. Sure it’s panorama pretty and fraught with high adventure, but “Wildest Dream” is also an educated attempt to solve the long-standing questions surrounding the June 8, 1924 disappearance of George Mallory, a British explorer lost in the clouds just 800 feet from the mountain’s summit. Mallory may, or may not, have been the first man to summit Everest. The ominous score by Joel Douek further drives home the seriousness that Geffen, whose 25-year documentary career has spanned many BBC productions and award winning works, imbues in this National Geographic Entertainment presentation that just opened at the Johnson IMAX Theatre at Washington’s National Museum of Natural History.
Despite the sometimes unconvincing sense of re-enactment that renowned American mountaineer Conrad Anker conveys as he ‘discovers’ Mallory’s body in 1999, the vocal talents of Liam Neeson (as narrator), Ralph Fiennes (reading from Mallory’s passionate letters home), and Neeson’s late wife Natasha Richardson—who tragically died in a skiing accident in Quebec in March 2009—as Mallory’s wife Ruth, elevate the production into a sporadically complex love triangle between a man, his wife, and a mountain. Another emotional dimension is the addition of adventurer Anker as the intersecting centerpiece, looking for answers to the doomed yet legendary expedition, while also noting the parallels between his life and that of Mallory’s—of family torn apart with concern for life, danger, and possible death. Maybe, like adjusting to the atmospheric pressures as you scale the world’s highest rock, Ankers’ wife Jenni—previously married to another climber (and Conrad’s climbing partner), Alex Lowe, killed in an avalanche the same year Anker found Mallory’s remains on the side of Everest—is able to adapt to Ankers’ terrifying and borderline lunatic desire to retrace Mallory’s fateful excursion. This includes sporting the same gear (gabardine suit, hobnailed boots, antique oxygen tanks, cotton rope) that Mallory was using when he and his climbing partner Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine had used 60+ years earlier.
Based on a forensic examination of the fairly well-preserved skeletal remains of Mallory, the film suggests that Mallory was, indeed, the first man to scale Everest. Using extension family materials, interviews with Mallory’s granddaughter and other relations, film footage, numerous archival materials, and a missing photograph of his wife—a portrait he had promised to live at the summit—the evidence is fairly convincing and probably the closest proof we’ll get outside of finding “Mallory was here,” scrawled under a mountaintop rock.
Geffen follows a fairly linear storyline, detailing the earlier unsuccessful scalings of Everest involving Mallory, the concern of his wife back in Cambridge that their three children will be left fatherless, a 1923 trip to America were he uttered the famous answer “Because it’s there,” to a reporter’s question about “Why Everest?”
And then there’s the retracing of the North East Ridge Route that Mallory and Irvine took back in the 1920s, which begins in ernest half way through the feature. The latter’s stand-in for the 2007 climb is Lee Houlding, an ambitious, cocky British climber who, like Irvine, had never attempted to climb in the Himalayas. Of course there are other members of the crew, including Geffen, who stay out of the frame for most of the film, the only evidence of their existence an occasional shadow or voice, or the fact that other experienced climbers/film-and-sound technicians must be using the high-definition equipment to capture the men as they ascend. (The production team actually consisted of 10 Westerners and a support staff of 10 climbing Sherpas and 10 camp Sherpas.) It is a little disconcerting when the Ankers and Houlding are shown edging up an icy precipice toward the camera, but it’s an excusable cheat for dramatic effect.
For lovers of the greatest of outdoors, “The Wildest Dream” is a worthy excursion, especially on the big IMAX screen. However, if you happen over to the National Geographic’s headquarters in downtown D.C., there are some boulders outside the entrance with signage that suggests a mixed message, but only for those with a more than curious interest in scaling Everests of all shape and sizes. The message? “Rock climbing is strictly prohibited.”