Film Review: The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest

Soaring visuals of the mighty mount combine with a portrait of intriguing George Mallory to hit a new peak in adventure filmmaking.

The Wildest Dream is not simply a gorgeous adventure film—it's a suspenseful quest that attempts to unravel mysteries surrounding the death of legendary mountaineer George Mallory on Mount Everest. Was he, in fact, the first to reach the summit of the world's tallest peak? Transcending the edutainment genre, the film also explores the enigma of Mallory himself, who passed into legend when he vanished in his ill-fated assault on the mountain in 1924.

Seventy-five years later, high in Everest's "death zone," American climber Conrad Anker discovered the body of Mallory, who was last seen 800 feet from the summit. Remarkably, Mallory's body was found with all his belongings intact—except, significantly, for a photograph of his wife, Ruth, which he'd promised to place at the summit. The Wildest Dream records Anker's attempt, along with Brit climbing whiz Leo Houlding, to replicate Mallory's climb to ascertain whether he might have reached the peak. Reproducing the exact conditions faced by Mallory, they set out wearing the same gabardine and hobnailed boots (later replaced with state-of-the-art gear), and with the help of sherpas they remove a bolted-on ladder that aids the current generation of climbers.

The film artfully deploys a double narrative consisting of archival footage and re-enactments of the Mallory expedition, coupled with Conrad and Leo's in 2007. At the center looms the beguiling Mallory, captured in part by haunting black-and-white photos of a rugged fellow with riveting, pale eyes that appear to be contemplating icy vastness. Mallory comes across as a charismatic dreamer, obsessed, in the golden age of exploration, with conquering Everest "because it's there," as he famously stated. Adventurers, the film reveals, are differently wired from you and me. Already fearless at age seven, Mallory scaled the church run by his vicar father. As his granddaughter says, "His arms and legs would eat up a mountain."

The film is also, in a sense, a love triangle, featuring Mallory, his beloved wife, and her dread rival, Mount Everest. To judge by the couple's letters and accounts by his granddaughter, Mallory deeply loved Ruth and their children—but not enough, apparently, to resist the allure of the great white fang. The mystery of why at age 38 he left his idyllic-seeming household to court peril is the enigma underpinning the story—and, by extension, the motives of all those who attempt death-defying feats.

The armchair mountaineer is first introduced to Everest by the sound of the wind's banshee howls at 26,000 feet, followed by dazzling views of glaciers and pinnacles; the giant ice wall that leads up to what Mallory named the North Coll; and the final triumphant steps to the "top of the world." The fascinating technical info includes a computer-generated illustration of the path Mallory's team carved up the mountain, along with depictions of the "death zone," where humans, unable to live at such altitudes, are literally dying.

Liam Neeson narrates, while Mallory is voiced in the plummy accent of Ralph Fiennes. Though the soundtrack is cheesy at times, talking heads, usually a bore, are kept to a minimum. This masterful documentary delivers awesome views and thrilling feats, while exploring the psyche of a fascinating figure.