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Five Movies About Climbing Mountains

Some environments are easier to capture on film than others.  A skilled director should have no problem conveying realistic surroundings when shooting a romantic comedy.

Similarly, when a movie takes place on another world or in the distant future, the director won’t necessarily be limited to creating a world that will be familiar to the audience. But movies about climbing mountains are trickier.  Portraying the overwhelming scale of the mountain in a way that doesn’t look fake, and doesn’t overwhelm the human drama of the story, presents a unique challenge – both stylistically and logistically.Sets and green screens often fail to transport us to the side of the mountain with the characters we’re watching, but shooting the film in real mountains presents other challenges. Sometimes the results are good, and sometimes they’re bad.

K2 (1991) 

Taylor (Michael Biehn) and Harold (Matt Craven) are two men whose friendship is based primarily upon love of the mountains.  Their personalities are vastly different – one’s a high-powered attorney and womanizer, while the other is a down-to-earth scientist and family man – but together they make a solid climbing team.  They get the chance to climb K2, and are ultimately faced with challenges they hadn’t planned on.

The story is predictable, the dialog sometimes laughable, and the guitar solos that play during the key sequences are great examples of the unfortunate side of 1980’s music. The movie shares some of the same gut-wrenching themes as Touching the Void (a book published a few years before K2 was released), but doesn’t pack the same emotional punch.

Watch this movie for the mountain eye-candy, as the shots from Pakistan are superb.  Just don’t expect anything other than a popcorn flick, or to enjoy Michael Biehn’s screen presence. (Why didn’t he ever become a bigger movie star…?)

Cliffhanger (1993)

Ask most people to name a movie about mountain climbing and they’ll probably answer “Cliffhanger.” The movie was a box office success, and gave Sylvester Stallone’s career a much-needed shot in the arm (his two movies prior Cliffhanger were Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot).  In truth this is much less a movie about the mountains than it is just a straightforward action movie that just happens to be set in the mountains.

The premise (something crashes in a remote part of a difficult mountain, and the climbers have a good reason to try to reach the wreckage) is one that’s been used in other movies before (The Mountain) and since (Subzero).  In Cliffhanger we’re also treated to a famous Tyrolean traverse scene that starts the movie off with a bang, some great shots of the Dolomites, and the infamous “bolt gun” that Stallone’s character uses throughout.  (Perhaps the bolt gun is just “infamous” to folks who actually rock climb… it’s pure fiction.)

The climbing stunt doubles for the film include real-life climbing greats Ron Kauk and Wolfgang Gullich, and one of the credited writers is John Long (another significant figure in the world of modern rock climbing).  But despite the really big climbing names associated with the film, the film falls woefully short in climbing realism.  It can still be an enjoyable action flick, though, as plenty of things get blown up.

The Eiger Sanction (1975) 

Professor Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is a snob, and not particularly likable.  We soon learn that he’s also a black market art collector and double-super-top-secret agent for a shady government agency run by an ex-Nazi albino named “Dragon”. Seriously – the first part of the movie almost plays like a James Bond spoof. 

The agency needs Hemlock to perform one last mission, and it will require him to climb the North Face of the Eiger.  Hemlock’s out of shape, though, so he goes to Utah to train with an old climbing partner.  The length of the scenes in Utah probably aren’t justified by the plot, but they’re great fun to watch and do provide some stunning natural (and female) scenery.

On the whole, the movie depicts climbing fairly accurately for the time, at least compared to other big budget movies about climbing.  There are a few technical goofs (like when Hemlock leads up a rock chimney, but somehow gets himself onto a toprope part of it), but they don’t detract from the story.

Perhaps the most interesting and entertaining (or offensive, depending on your perspective) aspect of The Eiger Sanction is its unapologetic un-“PC” attitude.  Much of the dialogue could have come from the writers of “Family Guy” (if those writers only had a better sense of context).  It’s groan-inducing at times, but fun as long as you don’t take it too seriously.

The Mountain (1956) 

When a climbing movie is filmed in the Chamonix Valley, you’re starting out with a big advantage. The Mountain is the story of two brothers who venture up a dangerous mountain to reach a recently crashed airplane.

The brothers are played by Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner.  I question the casting… the hunched over and shuffling Tracy and the young and shiny Wagner as brothers?  (Their roles as father and son a couple of years earlier in Broken Lance were more believable) The characters are a bit one-dimensional – one is singularly wise, honorable and selfless, while the other is entirely reckless, greedy and selfish – but the story is still enjoyable and satisfying.

This is another movie that has a high degree of historical realism as far as the climbing goes.  Watching the older brother pound pitons into the rock is a bit tedious, but that’s what climbing is about sometimes.  The movie is a bit dated in its style, but it has aged well.

Nordwand (North Face) (2008) 

Nordwand is the head of the class among climbing movies.  Filmed in the Alps, the story is a largely accurate depiction of a 1936 attempt on the North Face of the Eiger.  The earliest parts of the film focus on the political machinations that get the climbers onto the mountain, but those story elements quickly fade away when the climbing actually begins.

From there it’s about the climbers, and the mountain, and a romantic interest watching from the ground.  She is the key to building and maintaining the tension.  We feel like we’re watching the climbers along with her, but through a much stronger telescope.  The level of intensity in the climbing scenes here aren’t matched by anything in any of the other films on this list.

Nordwand is gorgeous, but it never feels like you’re watching a movie.  The atmosphere is genuine; after spending time on the mountain the climbers wear down and look as haggard as you might imagine.  Other climbing movies tend to show their characters in distress, but never looking distressed. You can almost feel how cold and worn and beaten the climbers are here. Get yourself a copy of the DVD and watch this movie.

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About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.