Top Everest saga just hasn’t got what it takes

by Stephen Ross
First Published: Waikato Times, Feb 27, 2008

It came up in conversation the week after Sir Edmund Hillary’s funeral: why hasn’t there been a movie made about Hillary’s conquest of Mount Everest? There have been countless documentaries made about Sir Ed and his life but, to date, no one’s made a theatrical feature film dramatising the thing he is most famous for.

This is not for want of trying. Tom Scott has long endeavoured to get a film into production, and there’s a perennial rumour that Peter Jackson is busily beavering away on just such a project down in Wellington.

I’ll tell you why there hasn’t been a movie made about Hillary, and why there probably won’t be one in the future either: nothing went wrong. He walked up to the top of a mountain, and he walked down again.

Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to the top of Everest, and yes, it was dangerous – the mountain has claimed the lives of more than 200 climbers – but there was no near tragedy, no incident of holding on for dear life, and certainly no teetering on the edge of the abyss.

It all went swimmingly. They got to the top, admired the scenery, took a photo, and then climbed down again – a heroic feat, to be sure, but strangely not the stuff of motion pictures.

Which has got me thinking – we human beings are a funny lot, if our popular entertainment is anything to measure us by. We are seemingly more interested in failure than we are in success.

Take the 1940s movie “Scott of the Antarctic” – starring Sir John Mills as the explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Scott and his four companions died in their attempt to be the first men to reach the South Pole. They did get there, but Roald Amundsen – a Norwegian explorer – beat them to it, and Scott and his men perished on the return journey.

Scott is celebrated as one of the great explorers. Ralph Vaughan Williams even composed a symphony – “Sinfonia Antartica” – to commemorate the ill-fated expedition.

Name one movie, let alone a symphony, about Roald Amundsen.

You might dredge up “The Red Tent”, in which Amundsen was played by Sean Connery. But that movie wasn’t about Amundsen’s successful conquest of the South Pole, but rather someone else’s ill-fated attempt to sail over the North Pole in a dirigible. Note the term “ill-fated”.

And after Scott and Amundsen came Ernest Shackleton. He led the loftily titled Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914. The plan was to cross the Antarctic content – one side to the other, via the South Pole. It failed miserably. Naturally, it has been filmed – as Shackleton, 2002, a TV miniseries starring Kenneth Branagh.

In the 1950s, Sir Edmund Hillary was part of the highly successful Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, in which Shackleton’s goal was finally reached. Hillary became the first man to drive to the South Pole, doing so in a converted Massey Ferguson tractor – a very Kiwi-bloke thing to do. Typically, a miniseries, or motion picture, has yet to be made about the expedition.

Moving forward in time, there has been no “Apollo 11”, about man’s successful first landing on the moon. But there has been “Apollo 13”, about the three astronauts who nearly died attempting to repeat the event.

There were, in all, seven Apollo moon missions, and the only one to have had a motion picture made about it was the only one that went horribly wrong.

Apparently, a nervously spoken, “Houston, we have a problem,” is of much more interest than a calm and confident, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”

The moral of the story is: if you’re going to do something heroic, make sure there’s a bit of drama in it, and the more the better. That will guarantee your story lives on in celluloid.

In the end, we should perhaps be grateful Hollywood hasn’t yet got hold of Hillary, given Hollywood’s concept of dramatic license. Can you imagine it…?  Hillary climbs Everest, but he is in fact a secret agent working for the American Government, and his real mission is to cross the border and spy on the Chinese. Harrison Ford (65) will play Hillary (33), and Tenzing Norgay’s character will be changed to that of an attractive woman (18), whom Hillary bravely rescues from teetering on the edge of the abyss whilst, himself, hanging on for dear life.