When its comes to mountaineering being depicted in cinema, films like K2 and Touching the Void are often considered to be benchmarks of their kind. They are awe-inspiring spectacles, as well as technical marvels, which pay tribute to a treacherous pastime that exemplifies human achievement. And yet as adept as they are, another lesser-known film preceded them by decades and showcased the same level of mastery and astonishment.
Walt Disney’s 1959 adventure Third Man on the Mountain is, in my mind, the quintessential mountain-climbing film. Starring a young James MacArthur (Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson), Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and Janet Munro (The Day the Earth Caught Fire), the film takes place during the ‘Golden age of Alpinism” in the year 1865. Set in a small Swiss village at the base of the world’s largest mountain, the Citadel, a young kitchen-hand dreams of being the first to reach the mountain’s summit. Living in the shadows of his father who died while attempting the same fete, the teenage boy joins with a renowned climber to set about reaching the apex and fulfilling his old man’s last adventure.
The locals consider the mountain to be cursed and no man has dared set foot on its slopes for over 16 years. When the boy and his mentor announce their intentions, the community refuse to entertain their proposal, leaving the two adventurers to go it alone. And so begins one of Walt Disney’s most audacious and innovative films.
This is an incredible film that not only holds up some 57 years later, but also remains one of the most effective and jaw-dropping mountain films ever put to screen.
Switzerland was known to be one of Walt Disney’s favourite destinations and when the country’s Matterhorn mountain (depicted as the Citadel in the film) inspired him to make a new film, he was adamant that it wound break new ground. He insisted that it be shot on location and that the climbing presented in the film was real. The actors and crew were sent to boot camp and when the cameras rolled, they found themselves high above the word, risking life to achieve a realistic and hair-raising adventure.
The director was Ken Annakin, whose body of work is extensive. His films Landfall, The Sword and the Rose, and The Story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men show a filmmaker with an affinity for adventure storytelling and these titles proved him to be the ideal candidate to helm the film. He would go on to direct classic movies such as The Swiss Family Robinson, The Longest Day, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and The Pirate Movie (to name just a few).
For this film he had his climbers defying gravity with nothing but coils of rope as they negotiated deadly cliff-edges and terrifying ascensions. The atmosphere and environment that he captured amongst gruelling conditions were unlike anything seen at the time. The cinematography, in today’s standards, remains spectacular and every moment on the mountain is exhilarating. How the production managed to place the crew and equipment in such predicaments is astonishing, and where a select few scenes were shot on a sound stage, they’ve been so seamlessly sewn with the real footage that it’s near impossible to distinguish the difference.
It’s hard to comprehend how a film made in 1959 could possibly stand up against modern films, and given its reliance on practical effects and resources, Third Man on the Mountain defies logic. The 50s and 60s was a golden era for Disney’s live-action department, with movies like Treasure Island, 20 000 Leagues Under The Sea and Kidnapped keeping the standards high. To this day Third Man On The Mountain remains one of their more obscure titles, despite being one of their greatest achievements.