It’s not often I’ve sat through a whole silent movie that doesn’t feature slapstick comedy and a honky-tonk piano playing in the background, but in this case I made an exception.
The British Film Institute (BFI) has recently digitised a whole load of grainy 16mm film footage from the Royal Geographical Society’s historical archives and put it on their website to watch for free.
Among this treasure is some amateur footage of the 1955 British expedition to Kangchenjunga. The expedition was led by Charles Evans, but it was two of the other climbers, Joe Brown and George Band, who achieved fame by becoming the first people to reach the summit of the world’s third-highest mountain (actually, they stopped a couple of metres short of the summit to respect local customs that it was a holy place, but nobody has ever been churlish enough to say they didn’t make it).
The footage is largely unedited and completely silent, but if you’re patient enough to sit through this 13-minute excerpt you will get to see porters with big square boxes walking across a boulder field, the team unpacking beneath a large rock at base camp, more porters with big square boxes walking up a glacier, climbers coiling ropes at base camp, Joe Brown smoking a fag inside his tent, a man in a lumberjack shirt leading porters up a steep snow slope, a climber with a big pack crossing a ladder over a crevasse, a view up the ramp towards the west ridge, team members descending in a blizzard, climbers weaving their way through an intricate maze of seracs, and climbers fixing their gear at base camp in rather fetching John-Lennon style sunglasses.
There’s not a lot of footage of the actual ascent, but we do see someone digging a snow hole in a blizzard, and there is a view across cloud tops from up high on the mountain, including a glimpse of Everest in the distance. At the very end there is footage of what looks like someone in difficulties being led down the mountain between two other climbers. This could be Joe Brown, who suffered from snow blindness the day after their ascent, and had to be helped down by George Band.
I probably haven’t sold it very well, but give it a shot, and if you listen to this album 60 Classic Honky-Tonk Piano Tunes by The Crazy Guy on Spotify while you watch, it makes the whole film immeasurably more pleasurable. You really do expect Charlie Chaplin to appear at any moment.
I’m not able to embed the video here, so I have to send you off to the BFI website to watch it. I recommend the 13-minute excerpt, which covers the mountain part. If you’re feeling really bored though, you can watch the whole 107-minute video of the entire expedition, including their boat trip to India. That one’s for the die-hards only, and I couldn’t be bothered to watch it myself.
(There was a rumour that the BFI Player isn’t available outside the UK. I’m not sure why not. If this is true, then you’re better off sneaking it through a VPN rather that flying over here especially to watch it.)