The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest

Documenting a quest for a crest

Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding re-create George Mallory and Sandy Irvine's 1924 assault on Everest. Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding re-create George Mallory and Sandy Irvine's 1924 assault on Everest. (Jimmy Chin/National Geographic Entertainment )
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / August 13, 2010

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A title like “The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest’’ implies that Everest can’t conquer you. In fact, the reason for this documentary is that Englishmen George Mallory and Sandy Irvine tried to reach Everest’s summit in 1924 and were never again seen alive. The mountain has usually won. But this film stresses an arduous trek that dares to beat the odds. In 1999, Conrad Anker was part of an expedition that went looking for Mallory and Irvine’s remains, which he finds (Mallory’s, anyway) and whose discovery the film reenacts, complete with multiple exclamations of “Oh my God.’’

The movie doesn’t merely recount the story of Mallory’s life — Ralph Fiennes reads his letters, Natasha Richardson, who died last year, reads those of Mallory’s wife; Richardson’s husband, Liam Neeson, narrates. It builds a new melodrama around Mallory’s then-impossible dream. Anker wants to reach Everest’s summit in Mallory’s name. Anker gathers a crew, and the filmmakers (Anthony Geffen is the director) proceed to film his climb.

Were any studio other than National Geographic Entertainment to release this movie, the job of someone at NGE would be in jeopardy. The risk, the vistas, the snow, Anker’s intensity during on-camera interviews: They’re all camera-ready. But there’s something slightly disturbing in Anker’s mission that eludes the filmmakers. In cutting between Mallory’s fate and Anker’s determination, Geffen reveals that Anker married the widow of his climbing partner and adopted her three children. The partner died in a horrible accident, and Anker, in pursuit of Mallory’s dream, stands to exacerbate a lot of post-traumatic stress should, alas, he, too, not return home. (This says nothing of the film’s being narrated by a widower whose late wife recites the writings of a widow.)

The most powerful moment in the film is a tiny one. Anker and his Irvine, Leo Houlding, plan to reenact most of Mallory’s climb wearing gabardine and hobnail boots instead of North Face and Gore-Tex. When Anker’s wife, Jenni Lowe-Anker, asks her youngest son whether he would climb Everest wearing such old gear, he looks up at her sadly but sternly and says, “No. I wouldn’t climb Everest.’’ We never find out what effect his stepfather’s expedition has had on him. That’s too bad. It’s the one scene that manages to challenge the movie’s banal romance with adventure, sacrifice, and triumph by making us look, however fleetingly, at their miserable consequences. National Geographic Entertainment doesn’t release those sorts of movies. But it should.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

THE WILDEST DREAM: Conquest of Everest

Directed by: Anthony Geffen

Narrated by: Liam Neeson

Featuring the voices of: Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Hugh Dancy, and Alan Rickman

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 93 minutes

Unrated (depressing shots of frostbitten limbs)

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