Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
Director: Ken Annakin
Writer: Eleanore Griffin; Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman
Cinematographer: Harry Waxman
Producer: Bill Anderson and Walt Disney
by Jon Cvack
I’m pretty sure my favorite Disney movie is Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971); a fantastical movie about a multi-dimensional space traveling bed used by a trio of children cared for by their nanny played by Angela Lansbury. Having always watched this movie while I was home sick from school, this is probably one of my most watched films of all time and I haven’t seen it in probably over fifteen years. It’s part of that bizarre 1960/70s era when Disney made many forgettable live action narratives between their animations. The handful of (perhaps) well known films such as The Parent Trap (1961), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), Herbie (1963), The Love Bug (1968), and one of their best known, Mary Poppins (1964).
There are perhaps over three dozen of these films, most which I’ve never heard of - The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), Snowball Express (1972), The Million Dollar Duck (1971), That Damn Cat! (1965), The Moon Spinners (1964), and The Black Hole (1979); all of which sound at least amazing enough to see once.
Third Man on the Mountain was one of these films I’ve never heard of and discovered after seeing The Longest Day and looking up director Ken Annakin’s filmography. In addition to The Battle of the Bulge (1965), he also directed Swiss Family Robinson (which I haven’t seen) and The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988; which I also haven’t seen; though both are rated well). Checking these films, I then found director Robert Stevenson, who in addition to Mary Poppins, directed a bunch of other Disney Live Action movies, who’s filmography alone will give you an idea of their style.
Third Man on the Mountain inspired the creation of Disney’s Matterhorn ride, which I’m not sure I’ve ever rode, and is somehow more famous than the movie. It takes place in a small Swiss town below the alps, filmed on location in Switzerland. It follows a tween boy Rudi Matt (James MacArthur) whose father died while guiding a mountain climb, now living with his uncle Franz Lerner (James Donald). Rudi works in a small store with alongside his soon to be girlfriend Lizberth Hempel (Janet Munro) and his boss Theo Zurbriggen (Laurence Naismith), though he takes every moment he can to ditch out and mountain climb, with his eyes set on the legendary Matterhorn where his father passed.
His uncle disapproves of his ambition, where James Donald creates a person with the littlest amount of love before it becomes meaningless. Rudi soon meets the famous climber Captain John Winter (Michael Rennie) who recruits Franz to guide him up for his latest climb and convinces him to let Rudi join. Even in full screen with a terrible transfer, this movie was impressive; as you can feel the location’s authenticity, in which Annakin expertly frames the mountains to make you believe the whole crew must have climbed just as far up as they seem to. Rudi soon makes a silly mistake while camping out for the night, forcing the Captain and his uncle to risk their lives to save him; denying his invitation when they finally scale the Matterhorn.
The story never develops the excitement for what’s to come, as by the end, literally down to the very last five minutes or so, it felt as though the movie had yet to peak out. The Captain and Franz bring their own guide, who’s abrasive, knee jerk, and completely self-interested. While there are more moments of absolutely gorgeous set design and matte painting, it’s the smaller moments which feel deprived. Soon Rudi meets up with the guide and as they ditch the Captain and Franz (for reasons not entirely clear), the guide then falls off the mountain and hurts his leg and arm. Rudi forgoes the final summit in order to help him back down the mountain to safety; leaving the Captain and Franz to make the ascent and they all return to town to wild cheers and celebration.
The whole story feels like the first act to a movie, slowly moving through a bunch of different storylines, all pointing to the final summit. Perhaps it’s because we’re now spoiled with Kerouac’s Into Thin Air and it’s many renditions, but the film seems to suffer from a lack of the darkest hour. There are injuries and arguments and moments of tension, but it all seems to hint at what’s to come; later revealing that they’re all that there is. It’s a fun movie, and if you could find it in BluRay I’m sure all the story’s shortcomings might fade away with the visuals, but if not - the movie is like what late stage Hitchcock was to James Bond.
BELOW: Definitely had no idea this movie influenced the ride, but I also never rode it
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