by director Anthony Geffen
The seeds of The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest were planted more than 25 years ago while I was an intern for Frank Wells, the legendary Warner Bros. executive who was also a mountaineer. He knew I had a fascination with George Mallory, the climber who disappeared into legend just 800 feet from the summit of Mount Everest in 1924, and suggested I make a documentary about Mallory and Everest. In the years that followed, I moved to the BBC to direct films and he used to ring me frequently, right up until his tragic death in a helicopter accident in 1994, to ask if I had learnt to climb and how the film was progressing.
In 2004 I came across a book by Conrad Anker, the renowned American mountaineer who had found Mallory’s intact frozen body high on Everest. Everything was preserved on Mallory’s body apart from a photograph of his wife Ruth which was supposed to be in his right pocket—he had told her that he would place it on the top of the mountain. Here for me was the inspiration for the film, with Conrad Anker, who had been haunted by the experience of finding the body, replicating as closely as possible Mallory’s ill-fated expedition.
For me, this isn’t just a climbing film, but a film that works on lots of different levels. Mallory was a passionate and complex man, with a family, in pursuit of a dream. He was torn by two overwhelming loves—for his wife, and for the mountain. George and Ruth’s relationship is charted by the regular and emotional letters they exchanged. These letters, along with the photographs and extraordinary 35mm footage that survive from 1924, are a powerful record of Mallory’s expedition. The film also weaves in the personal story of Conrad Anker, the man who became obsessed by Mallory, and I think the parallels between these two great climbers make a fascinating comparison.
It took five years to raise the money, learn to climb, shoot the film and bring it to the cinema. Filming on Everest was a massive challengewith temperatures reaching minus 40 degreesbut we had extremely talented film crew, climbers and Sherpas.
It felt like the project had come full circle, after so many years, when the veteran Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, a colleague of Frank Wells, became the film’s executive producer. He really helped pull the film together, and it was taken to a new level by Liam Neeson’s narration, and readings by Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson (in her last film), Hugh Dancy and Alan Rickman who brought the letters and diaries from 1924 alive.
The mystery around Mallory is whether he made it to the summit before he died. For me, his story is far more interesting than this, and we didn’t set out to prove it either way. Mallory is an iconic figure, and the mystery is part of what makes his story so compelling.