The story of the first summiting of Mt. Everest in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
“We knocked the bastard off” is how Sir Edmund Hillary vividly described his first-ever summiting of Mount Everest on 29 May 1953. There had been numerous previous attempts, with nearly two dozen people having already lost their lives. But when ‘Sir Ed’ and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay finally achieved the landmark feat, they instantly became legends and sources of pride, both in Hillary’s native New Zealand and Norgay’s Nepal.
So it was perhaps inevitable that when a docudrama was eventually made about this athletic and cultural touchstone—particularly one made in New Zealand—that there would be a certain amount of inspirational hagiography involved. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: given the primitive equipment, rudimentary knowledge of the altitude’s toll on the human body of the time and Hillary’s humble, aw-shucks demeanour, the achievement becomes particularly heroic.
It is a relief to report, then, that Canadian émigré Leanne Pooley’s Beyond the Edge is, whilst by necessity utterly predictable, a seamless and very well-made film that succeeds in placing the viewer on the mountain with the intrepid adventurers, knocking the bastard off right alongside them.
Pooley and producer Matthew Metcalfe (Dean Spanley) have a few aces up their sleeves that go a long way towards giving the film what experiential power it possesses. They received the full cooperation of the Hillary and Norgay families, plus they had access to the superbly preserved 16mm colour footage and more than 1,000 35mm slides taken at the time. This materially has been astutely and seamlessly matched with Pooley’s recreation footage, which was shot on and around New Zealand’s Mt. Cook and features Hillary lookalike Chad Moffit as the mountaineer and Nepalese native Sonam Sherpa—whom the producers discovered working at a hotel restaurant near Mt. Cook.
The filmmakers have also wisely decided against punctuating the action with talking heads, preferring to use original audio interviews and contemporary opinions from the likes of Hillary’s son as voice-overs, with the speakers identified by title cards on the lower left-hand corner.
Add to this the production design of Grant Major (who won an Oscar for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and Richard Bluck’s crisp cinematography, and the resulting package is as good-looking as one could ever expect such a docu-drama to be.
So where’s the rub? Whilst the story is inspirational, the achievement unquestionably noteworthy and the story internationally known and celebrated, by these very parameters the movie lacks a certain amount of dramatic tension. It is on the record that Norgay pulled Hillary out of a crevasse into which he’d fallen, that Hillary himself doubted their ability to survive the ‘Death Zone’ of the last few thousand feet and that they only spent 15 minutes or so on the summit due to low oxygen levels in their primitive tanks. By choosing to focus the entirety of the film on the expedition itself, with only a few cursory flashbacks to suggest an strife at all in the mountaineer’s life—he was apparently bullied at school—the film sets itself up as more of a technical achievement than a dramatic one.
Still, the wake of the recent disaster on Everest that saw 16 Sherpas perish in an avalanche and the availability of the film in 3D at certain cinemas in Australia, Beyond the Edge is a timely, expertly crafted adventure with appeal for the whole family.