I’m going to start this post with a couple of warnings. Firstly, I should point out that I don’t watch much telly, and the last time I went to the cinema was October 2013, to watch the re-released version of John Noel’s 1924 silent movie The Epic of Everest. Many of the big name superstars who I understand fill the cast of Everest the Movie like the guest list at a Playboy Mansion party mean absolutely nothing to me.
With this in mind, if you still feel my film review is worth reading then go ahead.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this review assumes you are already familiar with the events surrounding the 1996 Everest tragedy. If you’re not and are intending to watch the movie, then close your eyes before reading any further, because there are many spoilers.
Wow, you’re still reading? In that case, thank you.
But just in case you’re not sure what I’m talking about, a big-budget film has just been released about mountaineering on Everest, starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin and Jake Gyllenhaal (hopefully most of you are not as stupid as I am, and will be familiar with some of these names). The film is based on the 1996 Everest tragedy, when two commercial teams, Adventure Consultants (led by Rob Hall) and Mountain Madness (led by Scott Fischer), found themselves fighting for their lives in a storm on the Southeast Ridge. The disaster was initially popularised by one of Adventure Consultants’ clients, the journalist Jon Krakauer, in his book Into Thin Air. Dozens of other accounts have been published since, each presenting a different slant on the events.
In fact, so many column inches have been produced about the 1996 Everest tragedy, they could rebuild the Parthenon with them. When I first heard they were making another film about it, my initial thought was “oh no, not another one.” I was expecting to hate it, but although I have a few reservations, I actually quite enjoyed it.
If you like you can take a sneaky peek at the official trailer, and this review might make more sense.
I’ve broken my critique down into six themes.
If you have the opportunity to watch Everest at an IMAX cinema, then I thoroughly recommend it. I watched the film in 3D at the BFI IMAX on London’s South Bank, which has a 26m by 20m screen, the biggest cinema screen in Britain. The photography was absolutely breathtaking, and although I understand some of the action was filmed in the Dolomites, what I saw was 100% Nepal. It started as early as the opening sequences in Kathmandu with aerial shots flying over the narrow streets of Thamel, and went on from there.
The aerial photography was unbelievably real. There had clearly been many overhead flights to film throughout the Khumbu region. Namche Bazaar was definitely Namche Bazaar, and similarly real was Tengboche Monastery, and the view up the Imja Khola to Ama Dablam and Everest peeping up behind the Nuptse-Lhotse wall. I even recognised an airy footbridge over the Dudh Khosi gorge on the way up to Namche. I’m less familiar with the scenery higher up on Everest’s south side, but the view up the Western Cwm, with Lhotse rising up at the far end, looked pretty authentic. Somebody who has actually climbed it will have to tell me whether the Hillary Step was like the real Hillary Step, but I do know the summit was very much like the real summit.
It was all enhanced by the 3D effects, which gave some sense of the exposure looking down gorges, crevasses and mountainous faces.
Media of all types have been guilty of sensationalising and over-dramatising their presentation of Everest to such a degree that reality falls by the wayside. In the case of movies, the drama is taken to such an extreme that if you’re at all familiar with the subject then it ends up being funny. A good example is the film Vertical Limit, set on K2, which includes a scene where one of the actors leaps over a chasm while roaring, and attaches himself to the other side by the picks of his ice axes. Many mountaineers regard this film as a comedy, although it’s supposed to be a drama.
In the case of commercial mountaineering on Everest, ever since Into Thin Air was first published, the media have liked to caricature commercial clients as wealthy incompetents with all the climbing ability of a three-legged elephant. Almost by definition none of us have ever strapped on a pair of crampons before we arrive on Everest.
Although there is a moment in Everest when Ian Woodall, leader of a South African team, is captured showing his clients how to put on their crampons, generally I would say the film presents the realities of a commercial expedition quite well, from team members getting to know each other at their hotel in Kathmandu, to the team meetings and lectures by the leader in the mess tent at base camp. Generally I would say the climbing scenes were fairly realistic too, with climbers moving very slowly up fixed lines using their jumars (although a scene where Beck Weathers falls off a ladder in the Khumbu Icefall did look a bit silly).
Although it’s not possible to recreate on film, the summit day scenes do give some sense of the hostile conditions experienced by climbers on Everest. One scene where Rob Hall tries to help his client Doug Hansen down the Hillary Step, does a good job of demonstrating the virtual impossibility of rescue at that altitude when a climber is too exhausted to walk. Some details, such as bodies lying in the snow after curling up to die of exhaustion, were almost chillingly real.
The film is a drama, and it’s necessary to overlook some of the less realistic fine details. The most glaring one was the amount of time climbers spent on summit day without sunglasses or oxygen masks over their faces (they would all have been snow blind long before they got anywhere near the summit). Of course, if they hadn’t shown their faces then we’d have to guess who they were by the colour of their down suits.
And as I mentioned earlier, the scenery itself was super authentic, and the next best thing to actually being in the Himalayas, from the streets of Kathmandu to the forested gorges of the Khumbu region, to every contour of Everest itself.
One of the things I liked most about this film is that it doesn’t have any particular agenda, something I was afraid of when I first heard it was being made.
In recent years the media have been determined to present commercial mountaineering on Everest as unethical, lamenting how the mountain has become a garbage dump, Sherpas are ruthlessly exploited, and commercial clients too incompetent to be there. Often they reminisce wistfully about a more romantic age.
Agendas like these are usually written by people without any interest in the subject they are writing about. They ignore the counter-arguments, breed more ignorance, and usually end up harming the cause they profess to be supporting. The writer moves on to the next subject, unaware of the mess they’ve left behind for those of us who do care.
In the case of mountaineering disasters, the subject is further blighted by the journalists’ need to apportion blame. Tragedies are analysed in minute detail and treated like murder mysteries, with journalists acting in the role of detective, judge and jury rolled into one. It makes for a good story, but they are writing about real people, who in real life usually have the right to a fair trial.
I am grateful to the makers of Everest for resisting the temptation to pursue any particular agenda. The film does not pass judgement on the rights and wrongs of commercial mountaineering on Everest, and the climbers are presented as ordinary people who end up fighting for their lives in extraordinary circumstances.
The film even makes an attempt to present the commercial client’s perspective. There is a scene at base camp when the Jon Krakauer character asks those around the table why they want to climb Everest.
“Because I can. Because if I have an opportunity to go to an amazing place few people have ever been then why wouldn’t I?” says Doug Hansen.
Later on Beck Weathers talks of a sense of imprisonment he experiences in every day life, which he is able to escape from on an expedition.
These scenes are slightly unconvincing, but these are both arguments I can relate to, and the mainstream media so rarely bothers to ask for our opinion that I have to salute the makers of this film for trying.
Neither does the film try to apportion blame for the tragedy, or pass judgement on the decisions or actions of any particular individual. This has been a problem with accounts of the 1996 Everest tragedy, ever since Jon Krakauer first appeared to lay the blame on Mountain Madness’s Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev in his book Into Thin Air.
Ironically there are even two scenes where Jon Krakauer’s character appears to shirk an opportunity to help his stricken team mates: when he passes Beck Weathers on the descent, and when Boukreev comes to his tent to ask him to assist in the rescue of climbers lost on the South Col. The words boot, other and foot spring to mind, and hopefully Krakauer will be able to see the funny side.
For a long time before it came out I understood Everest would be based on Into Thin Air, but this is not the case. The makers seem to have done their research and used a number of sources to piece together the story. From the script I am guessing these included Into Thin Air, Beck Weathers’ Left For Dead, Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb, as well as Graham Ratcliffe’s A Day To Die For (who has no role in the movie, but was a witness on the South Col in real life).
It’s worth bearing in mind that there never will be a single “true” account of what happened that day. These were oxygen-deprived climbers who were fighting for their lives. Each will have recalled the events in their own way, their recall could not be 100% accurate, even in the immediate aftermath, and as time passes it becomes coloured by outside influences as memory fades. Mountaineering disasters are not Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and there is no Miss Marple to find out exactly what happened (not even the Everest historian Elizabeth Hawley can do that).
Nevertheless the film has done a good job of presenting what facts we know.
There are a couple of plot points I have not seen mentioned in any published account. This is not surprising, as they involved Rob Hall and Doug Hansen, neither of whom survived. Many people believe Rob Hall exercised bad judgement by waiting on the summit for his client till 4pm. In the film Hall is shown meeting Hansen on his way down and instructing him to turn around. Hansen talks Hall into changing his mind, and both of them go back up to the summit. Later on, Hansen atones for this by telling Hall to leave him and save his own life, but Hall refuses. More controversially, Hansen is then shown deliberately unclipping from the rope when Hall turns his back, and falling to his death.
These two incidents are pure speculation. They may have happened or they may not, we will never know, but both are plausible.
One source the makers of the film may not have used was Jamling Tenzing Norgay’s Touching My Father’s Soul. Last week an article in the Nepali Times pointed out that the film downplays the role of Nepali characters. Rob Hall’s widow also made this point in a recent interview about the film. It’s true: the two sirdars Ang Dorje (Adventure Consultants) and Lopsang Jangbu (Mountain Madness) have only minor roles, but you could say this about most characters in the film, and it’s difficult to see how the makers could have done otherwise. Jamling’s book is one of the few I can think of that provides an adequate Sherpa perspective on the tragedy, but even he is writing from the position of a client (on the IMAX team) rather than a climbing Sherpa. I would love to see a film that provides more of a Sherpa perspective on climbing Everest, but I’m not sure this was the right one.
I’ve never fully understood why people have such a fascination with the 1996 Everest tragedy over other mountaineering disasters – perhaps they’re not aware of some of the others – but while I’m not a big fan of disaster porn myself I do understand why others are. At the heart of every disaster there is a very sad human story most of us who have loved and lost can relate to, and there is often an uplifting tale of survival as well.
The 1996 Everest disaster has both of these, and Everest takes full advantage of them. Rob Hall, the leader of the Adventure Consultants team, is the main character in the film. He refuses to leave a client for dead, sacrificing his own life in the process, then has a final conversation with his pregnant wife over a satellite phone on the South Summit. If you wrote this into a script people would probably say it was a bit far-fetched, but all of these things actually happened. These scenes are quite moving, and there are some weepy moments.
And then there is the story of Beck Weathers, who is left for dead in a whiteout on the South Col. Many people have died on high mountains in this way; they fall asleep and never wake up. It happened to Beck’s team mate Yasuko Namba. Those who do wake up don’t have the energy to get up and save themselves, but not Beck. In his book called, appropriately enough, Left For Dead, Beck Weathers described how thoughts of his family, and the fact that he never said goodbye to them, inspired him to rise up and stagger back to camp. These scenes are played out in full, and are quite powerful, although the shots of his frostbite injuries seem a little gratuitous, however realistic they may be.
There is also an opportunity for some action sequences as he is plucked from the Western Cwm by helicopter after making his way down. These evacuations are routine nowadays – over a hundred people were rescued from approximately the same location after the earthquake this year – but in 1996 it was the highest helicopter evacuation ever made, and nobody knew whether it would be possible. Beck Weathers made a point of thanking Nepali pilot Lt Col Madan Khatri Chhetri for his exceptional bravery.
I’m no film critic, but I would say there are a few too many characters in this particular story, which means most of them are not very well developed. Rob Hall is the obvious exception, and perhaps the motherly figure of base camp manager Helen Wilton. The others all seem a bit superficial, which brings me neatly onto the final part of this critique, and my biggest gripe.
This is the one aspect of the film which makes me most uncomfortable. At the end of the day, this is a film about real people, describing events that happened less than twenty years ago. Emotions are still raw. Most of the characters are still alive, and those who are not are still remembered.
Some will be happy with the way they are portrayed on film, while others will not. Similarly, I expect some families will have cooperated fully with the makers, while others want to move on, and wish the film had never been made.
For example, Rob Hall’s character is well-rounded and sensitively portrayed. It looks like those he left behind were closely involved in the making of the film, and there is even footage of his daughter (unborn at the time of the tragedy) in the closing sequence. I expect his family are happy with the film, which is a fitting tribute to his memory.
Slightly less happy will be the family of Yasuko Namba. The scenes of her lying down to die, curled up in a foetal position as the snow gradually covers her body, will make for uncomfortable viewing. I can’t imagine Andy Harris’s family will want to watch the scene where he strips off his down jacket and falls off the Southeast Ridge too many times.
I don’t know whether Jake Gyllenhaal got the OK from Scott Fischer’s family to play him as a dissolute wastrel, or whether he was like that in real life, but I suspect they would prefer if he hadn’t. If this post by Scott Fischer’s widow, expressing her fears prior to the film’s release, is anything to go by, they may not even have been consulted. It’s not the first time something like this has been done to Scott Fischer’s memory. A few years ago they made a TV movie version of Into Thin Air that was so bad it made Vertical Limit look like Shakespeare. I don’t remember much about it, apart from the scene where Scott Fischer cries “I am invincible!” as he lies dying on the Southeast Ridge.
Scott Fischer deserves more from posterity. He did a better job at selecting his team than Rob Hall. While he had a bad day himself and paid for it with his life, his clients appeared to be stronger and more self-sufficient than Adventure Consultants’. Crucially, they all got themselves down safely on a day their leader struggled. Adventure Consultants (who charge an arm and a leg for their expeditions, not just on Everest but worldwide) have certainly done much better out of this film than Mountain Madness. Their current CEO, Guy Cotter, even figures as a major character in the story, despite climbing a different mountain at the time!
There aren’t too many baddies in the film, but one is Ian Woodall, leader of a South African team, who has an argument with Rob Hall at base camp. Woodall presents an easy target because the South African team were beset by strife, and some of their more experienced team members walked out before they reached base camp. But they play no real part in this particular story, and if the producers of the film felt they needed a pantomime villain at base camp they could have just made up a fictional character rather than using a real person.
The more I think about this, the more I wonder why any of the characters needed to be based on real people at all. The makers could simply have used the 1996 Everest tragedy as a starting point to develop a different, even better, fictional story about a tragedy involving commercial climbers on Everest. There could be fewer characters, providing an opportunity to develop others beside Rob Hall.
But as I said at the beginning, I don’t watch many movies, so I don’t really understand.
The main thing for me is that I was expecting to hate the film, but I ended up really enjoying it. I have far more good things to say about it than bad, and if you’re wavering about whether to go and watch then you definitely should. It’s way better than other mountaineering movies I’ve seen.