Pioneering mountaineer George Mallory was missing for 75 years. He and his climbing partner, Andrew "Sandy" Irvine were spotted 800 feet below the summit of Mt. Everest on June 8, 1924 and then not seen again until 1999 when Mallory's broken body was discovered on the mountaintop. Whether the two men actually made it to the world's highest peak nearly three decades before Sir Edmund Hilary became the first man to officially ascend the summit remains a mystery, but in 2007 two modern-day climbers resolved to recreate Mallory's experience as closely as they could to see if it was possible. The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest spins the exhilarating stories of those two climbs, 83 years apart. Part saga of days gone by, part psychological portrait of the mountaineering spirit, as well as a tale of adventure, Anthony Geffen's doc will rivet fans of the sport and history buffs alike. Box office returns look to be modest with the film enjoying a long afterlife on television and DVD.
American climber Conrad Anker was the man who discovered Mallory's corpse far off the summit route during that 1999 expedition. The frozen conditions preserved Mallory's possessions, but missing was the photo of his wife Ruth that Mallory had promised to leave at the top of the mountain, offering the tantalizing possibility that Mallory and Irvine actually succeeded in their quest. Denied entry to Tibet and thus access to the easier southern route to Everest, Mallory made his ascent from Nepal and the more forbidding north.
In the 1970s, the Chinese erected a 30' ladder across a 10,000' vertical drop to make managing the treacherous second step to Everest's summit. In contrast, Mallory and Irvine would have to free climb to navigate that terrain. The clothing of the era, too, was primitive, with Mallory dressed in gabardine (seven layers) and hobnail boots. In replicating the 1924 experience, Anker and climbing partner Leo Houlding, who like Irvine was a novice to extreme altitudes, schedule their expedition for late in the season, close to monsoon time. The team plan to wear historically accurate clothing part of the time and arrange for the Chinese ladder to be removed before they begin their assault on the second step.
Liam Neeson narrates and Ralph Fiennes provides the voice of Mallory. Neeson's late wife, Natasha Richardson (to whom the film is dedicated), speaks for Ruth, in a film that makes generous use of Mallory and Ruth's letters, Irvine's journal and footage and recreations of the 1924 expedition. Mallory's passion for the mountain and for his wife come through loud and clear, "a love triangle" in the words of one observer in the doc. Anker comes across just as driven and with as much at stake (like Mallory, he has a wife and three children waiting at home), but a professional mountaineer with modern gear at his disposal, his expedition seems like a safer bet, at least until he has to decide whether he really has time to make it to the summit before a coming monsoon would leave his expedition trapped beyond rescue.
Mallory's expedition is a tale of tragedy. Not only were he and Irvine lost, but seven Sherpas perished along the way. Another member of the party nearly choked to death "before coughing up part of his frostbitten larynx." Following in Mallory's footsteps, then, would seem like a foolhardy experiment for Anker and company, except that screenwriter Mark Halliley has caught Mallory's passionate obsession and Geffen and his camera team have captured the majesty of the mountain. Why anyone would want to dare death climbing higher than humans were ever meant to go is manifest in the images of the snow-draped peak. Mountain climbers will appreciate this Wildest Dream more than anyone else, but the film opens a window for the rest of us into why they do it. It is a moving tale and a breathtaking sight.
Distributor: National Geographic
Cast: Conrad Anker, Leo Houlding, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Hugh Dancy and Alan Rickman
Director: Anthony Geffen
Screenwriter: Mark Halliley
Producer: Anthony Geffen and Claudia Perkins
Rating: PG for thematic elements involving hardships of climbing, and some historical smoking images.
Running time: 93 min
Release date: August 6 ltd.