Directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Anthony Geffen and featuring the vocal talents of narrators Liam Neeson, Hugh Dancy, the late Natasha Richardson, Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman, The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest is a breathtaking mountaineering adventure that seeks to provide answers to the enduring mystery of the death of George Mallory on Mount Everest.
The film, Rated PG-13, from National Geographic Entertainment presents an Altitude Films Production with Atlantic Productions opens August 13 at the Landmark/Lagoon Cinemas in Minneapolis.
The Wildest Dream is a breathtaking mountaineering adventure that seeks to provide answers to the enduring mysteries surrounding the death of George Mallory on Mount Everest. Foremost among them: Could Mallory have succeeded in reaching the summit before he and fellow climber Andrew “Sandy” Irvine disappeared in 1924?
In 1999, renowned American mountaineer Conrad Anker made a discovery that reverberated around the globe. High in Mount Everest’s “death zone,” he found the body of George Mallory – 75 years after the British explorer mysteriously vanished during his attempt to become the first man to summit the world’s tallest peak.
Mallory had risked everything as he set out, dressed in gabardine and hobnailed boots, in pursuit of his dream of reaching the top of Everest – which in 1924 was the last great adventure left to man. He was last spotted alive at just 800 feet below the summit. Then the clouds rolled in and Mallory vanished into legend.
After discovering Mallory’s body, Conrad Anker’s life became intertwined with Mallory’s story. Remarkably, Mallory’s body was found with all his belongings intact. The only thing missing was a photograph of Ruth, which Mallory had promised to place on the summit. Haunted by Mallory’s story, Conrad longed to return to Everest to lay Mallory’s ghost to rest.
In the quest for answers, Anker finally returns to Everest in 2007 with British climbing prodigy Leo Houlding, replicating as closely as possible Mallory’s ill-fated expedition. The men retrace the North East Ridge Route, even removing the ladder from the infamous Second Step to “free climb” this dangerous 90-foot sheer rock wall just as Mallory and Irvine would have had to do 83 years earlier.
Far more than a film about mountain climbing, The Wildest Dream tells the remarkable story of George Mallory, whose famous reply to a reporter’s question about his reason for wanting to climb Everest (“Because it’s there”) has inspired generations of adventurers. Mallory was a passionate and complex man, torn between two overwhelming and competing loves: his wife and the mountain that ultimately took his life.
Told through the poignant and evocative letters between Mallory and his beloved Ruth, the film combines previously unseen archival photos, specially restored film footage and dramatization with the present-day story of Anker’s expedition to tell the tale of the quest to conquer Everest and the compelling longing for home. In this, Anker’s story parallels Mallory’s in a tale of obsession as relevant today as it was in 1924.
To pull together these more personal aspects of the film, Geffen says he turned to researchers, to mountaineering writer Peter Gillman, and to Mallory’s family. “They were quite wary of anyone trying to make a film, as people approach them all the time,” Geffen says. “But once we had their agreement, we discovered amazing things in the archive. There were cans of film that nobody had ever opened as well as old photographs and letters.”
Anker, who has been described by Outside magazine as the world’s greatest adventurer, says he’s been approached by several people to work on this film in the past. But he was deeply impressed by Geffen’s work as a filmmaker and recalls that, as the two of them talked about the project in 2004 and 2005, a shared vision emerged for what they wanted to accomplish. “To do a film of the highest possible quality that would really honor Mallory. That was our basic goal,” Anker says.
For both men, the inspiration for the project was largely George Mallory himself. “I like the fact that he wasn’t just a climber,” Anker says. “He was this person of depth and character and he reflected the times in which he lived. Perhaps naïvely, I see myself that way.” “This isn’t just a film about conquering a mountain,” Geffen adds. “Mallory himself is fascinating. He’s a fearless explorer, but also a writer, and very much in love with his wife, Ruth. I was fascinated by their relationship. … I wasn’t just interested in answering the question, ‘Did he or didn’t he make it to the top?’”
The context of Mallory’s era was also a compelling factor for Geffen. “I wanted to look at what it meant to be doing this at that exact moment in history,” he says. “It’s the end of the Empire, the time of the Paris Olympics, which gave us Chariots of Fire, when Everest is unexplored territory.”
Geffen says he was especially intrigued by the “parallel story” between Mallory and Anker. “Both were risking everything, both had wives and children at home, and their lives intersected on the mountain,” Geffen says. “The mountain is the backdrop that draws these two men, and it’s an amazing backdrop, but the real story is about a human journey and its consequences.”
Mallory and his wife, Ruth, had three children. Anker lives with his wife, Jenni, and their three sons. Adding poignancy and resonance to the story is the fact that Jenni had suffered a tragedy similar to Ruth’s before production began on The Wildest Dream. Her first husband, mountaineering legend Alex Lowe, was killed in an avalanche in Tibet in 1999 – the same year Anker found Mallory’s body in an earlier expedition.
Anker, who was Lowe’s best friend and climbing partner, survived the avalanche, but not without injuries, both physical and in the form of survivor’s guilt. Geffen says he was fascinated by what it is that makes some men put themselves in such danger, even knowing the risks.
“Everest has this weird way of attracting people despite what it can do to them,” he observes.
Providing further parallels to the 1924 expedition, Anker chose young British climbing prodigy Leo Houlding as his partner, and not just because of his world-class rock-climbing skills. “The main thing was the parallel between us and Mallory and Andrew Irvine,” Anker says. “There was the same age spread, the same difference in experience levels. Like Irvine, Leo had never been to Everest before. I had summited Everest in 1999. Mallory, although he had never successfully climbed it, had been on two previous Everest expeditions.”