George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared a few hundred meters from the summit of Mount Everest in June 1924. In doing so they created the most enduring mysteries and myths of mountaineering. Did they get to the summit before the clouds covered them from the view of his comrades following them through binoculars from a lower camp ? Especially Mallory, for not only was he leading, but also because he is reputed to be the greatest climber the world has ever known. And if so, then Everest was ‘conquered’ long before Hilary and Tenzing did in 1953.
75 years later Mallory’s amazingly preserved body was found by another expedition. He had obviously fallen. Yet the mythology surrounding Mallory created even more of a mystique. Did he fall on the way up or the way down ? His body was lying in a strange position, almost supplicant to the peak. Like he was prostrating and praying to ‘Chomolungma’ – The Mother Goddess of the World – as the Tibetans call it.
So when I was asked to make a film on George Mallory by Julia Robert’s film Co, that was the first idea that struck me. I have been a sort of amateur climber myself, always attracted to the sheer immensity of the mountains.
Why is it that when faced with an immensity that threatens to challenge our own sense of individuality on this planet, something that threatens to make us feel small, our instinct is to challenge and conquer it, rather than sublimating itself to it and thereby being part of it ? One an act of incredible ego, ambition and violence, the other an act of letting one’s ego drop, of letting the individuality go. A great act of Love actually.
We talk of ‘Man’s conquest of Space’. Of the ‘Conquest of Everest’. And of course have just come to terms with the horrendous consequences of our attempts to “conquer’ nature on our Planet. Is a religion or a faith, for example, a conquest of people’s minds and hearts, or is it an embracing through love ? These are the thoughts and questions that drove me to consider the film. After all, why do a film unless it is a journey of discovery of yourself ?
I have no doubt that ambition and the desire to conquer was how Mallory understood his need to pit himself against Everest again and again. he went there three times. At a time when no one had used oxygen for climbing before, and there was none of the sophisticated mountaineering gear we have today. If you look at pictures, you would think they were climbing in tweed jackets and trousers! But underneath ambition and the need to conquer, was there an underlying need to discover one’s identity ? A need to discover who we are really, beyond the idea of being individual ? After all Mallory had just come back from serving in the First World War, and when you see so much needless death and destruction around you, your own place in the Universe must come into question.
When Mallory got the summit, if he ever did, did he feel a great sense of conquering, or did he finally find himself embraced by the ‘Mother Goddess of the World’ ? Did he finally sublimate himself to the immensity and become one with it ? Did he, perhaps, discover that which he was searching for all his life ?