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Conquest of Everest, The (1953)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK ltd

Main image of Conquest of Everest, The (1953)
35mm, 80 min, colour
Filmed byThomas Stobart
Production CompanyCountryman Films
 Group 3
Commentary WriterLouis MacNeice
High Altitude PhotographyGeorge Lowe
MusicArthur Benjamin
NarratorMeredith Edwards

Cast: Sir Edmund Hillary (bee keeper); Norkay Tensing (Sherpa Sirdar); Sir John Hunt (army officer)

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Story of the first successful attempt on the peak of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. The team included John Hunt, Edmund Hillary, Tensing Norgay and Tom Stobart the film technician. The documentary details the history, preparation and description of the route.

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It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of Conquest of Everest - and of course the expedition it portrays - on the cinema audiences of 1953. Made by Countryman Films, a small production company more accustomed to shooting cute animal documentaries, and financed on a relatively small budget of £8,000, it hoovered up accolades and audiences around the world. In a recorded interview, co-producer John Taylor paints a humorous picture of the struggle against the giant Rank Organisation, who wanted to force them off the project once the historic significance of the film began to emerge. The extraordinary colour footage was shot by Tom Stobart and George Lowe, with aerial photography provided by the Indian Air Force.

Unlike other expedition films to remote, uninhabited regions, Conquest is located within the life of the societies around it. It begins with the lavish procession of Queen Elizabeth's coronation and moves quickly to the routine of the people who live below the mountain and the various communities they pass through. It portrays the rituals of the sacred Tibetan cities, the prayers etched into mountains, its culture and art. The film also gives equal weight to the experience of the Sherpas, the British and New Zealand crew without the chauvinism that might have been expected from a documentary of its time.

The early part of the film chronicles previous attempts on Everest, and includes rare footage from the 1922 expeditions shot by climber and photographer John Noel. It was Noel's photographs and films (Epic of Everest, 1922) that sustained Everest fever in the 1920s.

Poet Louis MacNeice's commentary captures the tension and physical struggle of the climb, and adds romance and emotion to the spectacular photography. The film foregrounds small human details - the father and son team of scientists, close friendships and personality quirks against an epic backdrop. To convey the challenge of the icy landscape, MacNeice quaintly compares the South Col to the moon: "a place outside of human experience."

Although the successful 1953 Everest expedition has been identified as a triumph for Hillary and Tensing, Conquest of Everest shows that teamwork and meticulous planning were the real heroes. It also reveals the relationship between exploration, science and technology. For example, it was a first too on the mountain for windproof nylon, shrinkwrapped food and lightweight aluminium.

Ann Ogidi

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Video Clips
1. Opening (2:17)
2. Getting to know the team (3:22)
3. Through the ice corridor (2:20)
4. Heavy weather (2:37)
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