Friday, 17 September 2010

The Wildest Dream (US, 2010)

Genre: Documentary
What if we could bring the dead back to life? In fantasy, we could find out what they alone know. But in reality, the dead keep their secrets. The best we can do is to follow in their footsteps. “The Wildest Dream” is a documentary filmed on a climb to the top of Everest interspersed with interviews, photos, archive footage and narrated correspondence from the 1920s as the American climber, Conrad Anker, retraces the steps of the indomitable British explorer George Mallory, his love for his wife, "dearest Ruth", his fatal attraction for Everest, that "prodigious white fang, an excrescence from the jaw of the world", and seeks to answer whether it was possible that he reached the summit of the world almost thirty years before it was finally conquered. He was last seen with his travelling companion Andrew Irvine a few hundred metres from the top before the clouds rolled in and obscured them from view. Only recently his body was re-discovered, face down in the scree and arms outstretched to catch his fall. But was he coming down or still going up? All his belongings were intact, frozen in time, but the photo of his wife which he had promised to place at the top of Everest was nowhere to be found. Had he already fulfilled his promise?

It is a beautiful and moving story. On the first expedition, Mallory, approaching from Tibet because Nepal had forbidden access from the easier South side, eventually managed to find a winding glacial valley that led right to the foot of Everest itself. But monsoon snows made climbing impossible after June. Six months later he would return and try again, but the expedition was hit by a fatal avalanche. In 1924, at the age of 38, he would try for a third and last time. Despite the pain of separation from his wife and three children, the fire of his dream still burned strong and he couldn’t bear to think others would achieve the crowning glory by building on his pioneering work.

Climbing Mount Everest as the filmmakers did to make this film is never to be taken lightly. They tested out wearing gabardine and hobnail boots as Mallory had done, but quickly reverted to modern clothing to avoid the danger of frostbite. What courage, what resolve, what fearless determination and pioneering spirit that Mallory and Irvine had to get so far! Whether they made it on that last fateful day, only a few hours from the top but with the difficult Second Step in their way, we’ll never know. But this documentary, despite an inherent bias in the making, shows that it was indeed possible, and despite that bias we can well believe they did. Within touching distance, a greater power takes over. In a tragic twist of fate, Natasha Robertson, who played the mountaineer’s wife, passed away in a freak skiing accident in 2009 and the film is dedicated to her.

This documentary is powerful and a great feat in itself in the making, and yet it lacks a balance of perspective from the doubters. The loving letters between Mallory and his wife provide a beautiful commentary, but still the movie becomes somewhat earthy and could have done with more about the poetry, culture and psychology of the mountain. If the spiritual is reduced to the physical, then something is lost. Eerily, the lama of the Rongbuk monastery where Mallory paid homage before his ascent warned him unequivocally not to disturb the sacred spirit of the mountain, and it's easy to see why none in the East had tried before. It took a certain combination of the selfishness and selflessness that characterised this golden age of exploration. When asked by an American reporter why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory is said to have replied, "Because it is there", distilling perfectly the notion of emptiness and purpose for purpose's sake. However, though Mallory survived the Battle of the Somme, he could not survive Everest. He made the ultimate sacrifice. The word sacrifice literally means an act in the name of the sacred.

I leave the last words to George Malloray...
"We have conquered the mountain, and the mountain was in us."


  1. I leave the last words to George Malloray...
    "We have conquered the mountain, and the mountain was in us."

    I LOVE that!

  2. Love the picture, their eyes, speak volumes to me.

  3. Thanks Lee! I have to admit I'm not sure if those were the exact words because I couldn't find the quote anywhere online, but it was something along those lines, so I'm going to pretend they were.

    It shows he recognized a "spirituality" to his endeavour. Perhaps, whenever people are absorbed in something, it necessarily brings out the spiritual in them. A pity I think that the Tibetan lama who discouraged him did not recognize that. Though it does raise the question... "what is it that makes a desire spiritual?" Hmmm... I will think on it.

  4. Thanks Rose! And what do they say?

    "Please don't go. If you love me, you'll stay"
    "I love you, but I must go and conquer the mountain that stands between us."
    "Why can't you just be satisfied with your wife and home and kids."
    "Because the thrill of success will make the rest of my life worth living."

    Man and woman, will they ever understand each other? LOL!