James MacArthur excels in the part of Rudi Matt, a young boy working as a dishwasher at an inn while yearning to become a mountain guide like his late father, who perished in a fall while attempting to climb the impregnable Citadel ( now known as the Matterhorn ). His mother and his uncle, still shaken from the death of his father, have forbidden him to do any climbing and attempt to quench his desire to conquer the mountain. But encouraging Rudi to pursue this dream are his friends Lizbeth ( Janet Munro ) and Teo ( Laurence Naismith ), the cook at the inn who helps him train for the climbs he attempts in secret.
On one of his secret treks up the Alps, he discovers and saves the life of Captain Winter ( Michael Rennie ) an illustrious mountaineer who had fallen in a crevasse. Winter perceives the natural climbing ability of Rudi and invites him to become a bearer on his climb to examine a route to the pinnacle of the mountain. Rudi's foolhardy daring endangers the lives of the other climbers on this trip and it is then that Rudi learns what it means to be a true guide, just as his father was. These lessons serve him well when he is given a second chance and journeys once more with climbers Winter and Saxo ( Herbert Lom ) becoming the third man on the mountain.
"It has the sort of high altitude thrills to send the viewer cowering deep in his seat and the sort of moving drama to put him on the edge of it". Variety magazine pegged the excitement of Third Man on the Mountain perfectly with their review of the film when it was released in theatres in November 1959.
Most public schools had "Banner in the Sky" on the required reading list for its lessons of unselfishness, patience and perseverance....all lessons which Rudi had to learn himself. Screenwriter Eleanore Griffon kept all of these themes intact for the film and encompassed them in a thrilling adventure that entertains jung und alt alike.
Third Man on the Mountain took three months to film with director Ken Annakin and the cast and crew doing extensive location shooting in the Zermatt area. MacArthur, Rennie, Lom and other cast members trained for several weeks with mountain guides to get the knack of climbing steep precipices. MacArthur recalled climbing up to 11,500 feet and, fortunately, the cast suffered no injuries. The only accident occurred when they returned to England to commence studio shots and MacArthur fell off an artificial rock.
While on location, actress Helen Hayes ( MacArthur's mother ) and Joyce, his girlfriend, visited the set and Annakin lured them into dressing up for guest appearances as mother/daughter tourists. Another bit of interesting trivia : Switzerland enraptured Walt Disney so much during the making of the film that it inspired him to add a new attraction to Disneyland - the Matterhorn.
Third Man on the Mountain is filled with just the right mixture of drama, humor, and nail-biting tension. It captures the amazing hardiness and daring-do of the 19th century climbers who risked their lives to conquer mountains such as the Matterhorn using only their raw hands and strands of rope and the grandeur of the scenery transports the audience right to the Alpine mountains along with the climbers. These elements, along with a top-notch cast, combine to make it one of the best live-action films to ever come out of Walt Disney Studios, a film that yodel-want-to-see again and again!