Monday, May 19, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Third Man on the Mountain" (1959)

Let's begin this discussion by stipulating that I consider mountain climbing to be quite possibly the dumbest enterprise ever conceived by man. Risking life and limb, not to mention gargantuan amounts of resources and manpower, just to scale a big rock? And with no recognizable reward for doing so, other than to be able to point and say, "I climbed it"?

Something can be foolhardy but still worthy -- traveling into space, say, or into the depths of the ocean. Perhaps there was a time in great antiquity when mountain climbers were true explorers, striving to go to places no one had ever been to find what was there. But even by the "golden age of alpinism" in the mid-19th century, most everyone involved in the endeavor did so for personal glory, not science.

"Third Man on the Mountain" is a Disney adventure movie that celebrates that time from a perspective a century hence, seen through the eyes of an 18-year-old boy who aspires to follow in his dead father's footsteps as one of the greatest climbers in Europe. Despite my reservations about its subject matter, I found it to be a bright, colorful, beautifully shot film with a reasonable amount of entertainment value.

The film, based on a book by James Ramsey Ullman and written for the screen by Eleanore Griffin, is about the conquering of a fictional peak called The Citadel, though the Matterhorn stood in its place. It actually inspired a new ride at Disneyland, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, that came out the same years as the movie. It's still running today after a refurbishment in 2012.

(No such hope for comparable longevity at Disney World in my hometown of Orlando, where it seems like every classic ride other than Space Mountain has been swapped out with newer stuff based on more recent Disney flicks. Oh, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, I pine for thee...)

The basic plot is pretty simple: young Rudi Matt (James MacArthur) was orphaned when his father, a legendary guide, died 16 years earlier trying to find a route up the Citadel. Now festooned in the town restaurant as a dishwasher, he pines to scale and climb. His uncle Franz (James Donald, forever the doctor from "A Bridge on the River Kwai") refuses to let him train as a guide. He's also scared to death of the Citadel, though he and the other guides hide it under a beer-soaked layer of bravado.

There's a girl in the story, because this sort of movie always has to have a girl, played here by Janet Munro as Lizbeth, daughter of the mayor and sorta/kinda beau of Rudi. There's a puckish contestant for her hand, she uses him to make Rudi jealous, and so forth -- very tiring stuff.

A couple of male figures act as role models and encouragement for Rudi. Captain John Winter (Michael Rennie, seemingly a foot taller than the rest of the cast) is a famous British alpinist who yearns to take on the Citadel, if only he can convince a local guide to accompany him. In an unlikely meeting, he falls into an icy crevasse and likely would've died if not for the happening by of Rudi.

The other man is Teo (Laurence Naismith), the old cook at Rudi's workplace who constantly frets at the absent-minded boy's breaking of dishes, but quietly encourages his dreams. Teo was once a guide himself before a terrible accident, and walks with a galloping hitch. But even at 65 he enjoys tackling smaller, less formidable peaks. Naismith has a terrific scene where he essentially takes on the entire gaggle of local guides, using the leverage of the crippled elderly man to shame them.

Also turning up is Herbert Lom as Emil Saxo, a surly guide from a competing village who gets recruited by Captain Winter when Franz and his cohorts balk. All three men and Rudi end up taking on the Citadel together, with various interpersonal conflicts and agendas competing.

The photography is just stunning, full of vivid colors and amazing vistas. The climbing footage is impressive even for its day, with the actors (or their stunt doubles) clambering across treacherous cliff faces with just their feet and hands plus a few humble tools -- rope, pickaxe, and that's about it. One nerve-rattling shot puts Franz virtually upside down, holding fast with one hand and his toe-holds, while he throws a loop of rope up above to pull himself up.

I'm deathly terrified of heights -- something that no doubt contributes to my disdain for mountain-climbing. But even if I weren't, I'd like to think I possessed the sense to eschew alpinism on its merits, or lack thereof. Watching movies where actors can do the derring-do themselves is far safer, and more entertaining.

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