The trend in Hollywood is to portray climbers as moronic adrenaline junkies in hot pursuit of death while accomplishing feats that break the rules of Newtonian physics. And the pillar of this fallacious portrayal is well-known among climbers and non-climbers alike. For non-climbers, it is probably the only climbing film they have ever seen. Even my 90-year-old neighbor has seen it. For climbers, it induces severe nausea only comparable to the screaming barfies — that tearful process of warm blood returning to frozen appendages. That movie is Vertical Limit. So painfully absurd that it makes you scream and vomit at the same time. (Of course, we can substitute Cliffhanger for Vertical Limit depending on the generation of the audience.)
But this phenomenon was not always so. A long time ago (1959), Walt Disney produced one of the best (if not the best) Hollywood climbing films, Third Man on the Mountain. It’s “the best Disney live-action feature that you’ve never seen,” according to Karl Holzheimer, the film writer.
Switzerland had enchanted Disney during his vacations there and he wanted to create a film that embodied that charm. A James Ramsey novel, Banner in the Sky, which was loosely based on the first ascent of the Matterhorn (a.k.a. The Citadel in the film), provided the perfect story.
While the plot is classic family fun, what makes this movie truly stand out are the climbing scenes. Disney and his producers had the good sense to hire the amazing French climber and filmmaker Gaston Rébuffat. Among Rébuffat’s accomplishments are:
Rébuffat also authored several classic climbing books, like Starlight and Storm, which is a wonderful narrative of his ascents of the great north faces.
Beyond the excellent cinematography, Third Man on the Mountain also stands out for embodying the ethos of the Golden Age of Alpinism—that blip in time when so many great peaks were first climbed, and thus opened to humanity. It makes sense that the Golden Age arrived on the heels of Romanticism. Climbing “impossible” mountains like the Matterhorn in the mid-19th Century required the Romantic attitude of spontaneous transcendental vision, of the irrational imaginative individual. Indeed, these qualities are carried on and honored in climbing today.
Edward Whymper, the real first ascensionist of the Matterhorn, once said:
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
Third Man on the Mountain follows through on Whymper’s words and gives us an elegant adaptation of the early days of our sport and the ideals that made those ascents possible.