The Wildest Dream -- Film Review

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PALM SPRINGS -- The very name Mount Everest conjures so many images and legends in one's mind that any movie about climbing that mystical, foreboding mountain, even by a dull filmmaker, should catch an audience in its thrall. Fortunately, director Anthony Geffen, maker of "The Wildest Dream," is anything but a dull filmmaker. In fact, he's a little prone to overdramatize and exude unbridled excitement about the historic climb that is the focus of this captivating documentary. But, hey, when a filmmaker -- and inexperienced climber -- manages to get as high as 26,000 feet on Everest, just 3,000 feet from the summit, he's entitled to yodel a bit.

"Dream" brings together so much history, sheer adventure and terrifying moments that prospects look very good for National Geographic Entertainment's release of the film in August in regular theaters and possibly on Imax screens. (The film cries out for Imax.) The film, which debuted at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, could use more festival exposure before its theatrical bow to build word-of- mouth.

Trade insiders will note a thanks to the late Frank Wells in the credit crawl. As a young man, Geffen worked under the respected film executive and avid mountaineer who encouraged him to make a film about Everest, the one peak that eluded Wells. Geffen has done his mentor proud.

The film has, in a sense, two protagonists. One is George Mallory, the renowned mountaineer who vanished near Everest's summit in May 1924. The other is Conrad Anker, who discovered Mallory's frozen body 75 years later. Geffen's idea is for Anker to replicate Mallory's ill-fated challenge to the peak, even to the point of using some of the climbing methods and clothing of Mallory's ascent.

Ostensibly, the purpose is to prove, as has long been conjectured, that Mallory and his climbing companion, Andrew "Sandy" Irving, were on their way down from the summit when they met their demise. Of course, even if you do manage to free-climb the forbidding "Second Step" on the North Ridge -- all climbers today use a ladder placed there by Chinese climbers in 1975 -- that doesn't really prove the two men did reach Everest's summit.

They were last seen alive 800 feet below the summit, and that's all we'll ever know. But what a wonderful chance to make a movie, and accompanying book, celebrating man's continuing need to defy the odds -- one in six will perish on Everest -- and subject the body to impossible conditions for the flush of glory.

So in 2007, up Geffen and his crew go with Anker and his partner, British climbing prodigy Lee Houlding. Using clothing found on Mallory's body, the climbers even try on gabardine and hobnailed boots -- footwear Houlding scoffs at as "decidedly inappropriate" -- for parts of the climb. Conclusion: The clothes are much worse than inappropriate.

What works best here, and in fact is downright eerie, is the back-and-forth between black-and-white archival footage of the Mallory climb and Anker's contemporary climb, often in the same locations. Interviews with such people as Susan Robertson, Mallory's granddaughter, and Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Anker's wife whose first husband was lost in an avalanche, provide a highly emotional context.

What works less well are re-enactments of 1924 and even Anker's discovery of Mallory's body, which one can charitably call hokey. The music also gushes a bit too much. There is no need to hype these life-threatening events happening on-camera.

When the mountaineers enter the "dead zone," a region above 23,000 feet where the oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life, the movie dispenses with the cornier effects. One shot of Houlding, nearly frost-bitten and gasping for breath, trying to warm himself in a tent, shows a man in absolute agony.

At another moment, on the Second Step, Anker slips and nearly plunges to his death. Every movement in this zone takes forever as reaction times have slowed dangerously.

Geffen and his cameramen do conk out before the summit. It remains for the mountain guides to film the men's final assault. While not to minimize their accomplishments, when you see the climbers being shot by other men from above, you realize the cameramen might be the real heroes here. Their accomplishments recall to mind one critic's comment that in their dance numbers, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only she did it backward and in high heels.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Production: National Geographic Entertainment presents an Altitude Films production in association with Atlantic Prods.
Director: Anthony Geffen
Screenwriter/edit producer: Mark Halliley
Producers: Claudia Perkins, Anthony Geffen
Executive producer: Mike Medavoy
Directors of photography: Chris Openshaw, Ken Sauls
Art director: Humphrey Bangham
Music: Joel Douek
Costume designer: Jane Wrigley
Editor: Peter Miller
Rated PG-13, 93 minutes
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