When George Mallory was asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, his response became the stuff of legend: "Because it's there." To many, Mallory's words seem to reflect the bold tenacity of a born adventurer, but there's another side to his famous statement. Climbing mountains is not a casual hobby, and while it's tough and risky today, it was genuinely dangerous in the 1920s. The technology used to scale mountains (from climbing shoes to portable oxygen tanks) was a far cry from what's available today, and just getting to Tibet (where Everest is located) was a significant task in and of itself. Mallory's words were those of a man obsessed, one who believed his life ultimately incomplete until he reached the highest peak in the world, and as long as that mountain was there and he had not stood at the top of it, he would never know peace.
George Mallory died in June of 1924 in the midst of his third attempt to scale Mount Everest. Photographers following Mallory's ascent lost track of him just 800 feet from the peak as clouds rolled in, and it wasn't until 1999 that his body was found. The great and unanswered question is whether or not Mallory actually made it to the top before he broke his leg and froze to death in the snow. Filmmaker Anthony Geffen offers a striking and intelligent study of Mallory's efforts to conquer Everest in his documentary The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest, but he also tries to determine if Mallory could indeed have been the first man to reach the mountain's highest peak (it wasn't until 1953 that Sir Edmund Hillary led the first confirmed ascent to the top), while also examining the hearts and minds of people who have dedicated themselves to this most dangerous of sports, then and now.
The story of George Mallory is at the core of The Wildest Dream -- his passion for adventure, his fascination with Everest, and his great love for his wife, Ruth, who was not always happy with his obsession with mountaineering (especially after his second attempt at scaling Everest led to the death of several members of his party), even as she supported him in his efforts. But while director Geffen recounts Mallory's story through photographs, rare film footage, letters and journal entries from George and Ruth, and judicious re-enactments, he finds a modern-day parallel in Conrad Anker, a expert climber from Montana who found Mallory's body during a 1999 ascent of Everest. Anker is clearly fascinated with Mallory's story, and like many dedicated mountaineers he wants to know if George made it to the top before his death. Anker sets out to answer some of these questions by climbing the mountain following the same path as Mallory, and using as much of the same equipment as possible. Anker and his spouse are painfully aware of the dangers this project can present -- his wife, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, a climber herself, lost her first husband to a climbing accident, and Conrad's determination in the face of seemingly reasonable self-preservation resembles that of the man whose example he follows.
Geffen paints the story of George Mallory and his love for Ruth in broad, dramatic stokes, and the readings of their correspondence (with Ralph Fiennes as the voice of George and the late Natasha Richardson as Ruth) give a rich sense of emotional color to what might have seemed like window dressing next to the larger story of George's obsession with Everest. (It's hard not to be amazed at the large scale of Mallory's crew and support team, and the fact that this very British crew brought an impressive supply of canned quail and foie gras to last through the ascent.) The modern-day story of Conrad Anker is more modest but similarly affecting; when we see Anker and his family together, we get a powerful sense of the human stakes of Anker's desire to learn the truth about Mallory. Anker commissions a climbing suit identical to the one Mallory wore for his trip, and when he models it for his family, one of his teenage sons quips in classic adolescent fashion, "You look like Inspector Gadget!" It's not as funny a moment later when Jennifer asks her youngest son what he would wear instead, and the child simply replies, "I wouldn't climb Everest." The boy lost his father to a mountain -- why would he want to follow the same path?
Director Geffen milks the drama of Mallory's and Anker's adventures for all it's worth, and even though it's reasonably evident early on how each climb will end, the filmmaker generates an admirable amount of suspense and allows viewers to decide for themselves if the actions of these men are brave or foolish. And cameramen Ken Sauls and Chris Openshaw capture striking images of the beauty and danger of Everest, never letting its majesty disguise the very real dangers of the climb. The Wildest Dream is a film that revels in the beauty of one of nature's most remarkable formations while subtly pondering the nature of the men and women who dedicate themselves to challenging something so vast and so dangerous; it never gets to the bottom of the mystery, but then again, in a real sense neither do many of the climbers, and that's a major part of this story.