Saturday, May 23, 2015

Third Man on the Mountain ( 1959 )

In the late 1950s, Walt Disney took a vacation to Zermatt, Switzerland and, upon his return home to the States, was inspired to produce a film that was as entertaining as the summer holiday he had taken. So, with his usual infallible skill in selecting personnel, Disney rounded up a crackerjack team of individuals to create an exciting adventure based upon the popular 1954 novel "Banner in the Sky" by James Ramsey Ullman. What resulted was Third Man on the Mountain, a film that captures all the majestic beauty of the Swiss Alps and the intrepid spirit of the mountaineers during the golden age of Alpining.

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! 

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review!! I heard about his movie, being a Walt Disney fan myself, but I didn't know whether to give a crack at it or not! Now I'm sure going to see it!! It sounds exciting!!

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    1. When you get a chance to see it, I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

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  2. I wish this Disney film was better known for all the reasons you described. I adore Janet Munro, who made far too few movies. She deserved her starring role in a Disney vehicle. BTW, your last line is hilarious!

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    1. Katie O'Gill ( Darby O'Gill and the Little People ) had always been my favorite Munro character, but after watching her in Third Man in the Mountain again I'm tempted to change my opinion about that. Disney had a knack for finding effervescent actors such as Munro and, of course, Hayley Mills.

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  3. This sounds awesome, and I love James MacArthur, so I'm putting this on my to-watch list. Thanks!

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    1. We're glad to introduce the film to you! Since TCM is now airing Walt Disney classics it is sure to be on cable soon.

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  4. I was an eye witness of the shooting in Zermatt. It was impressing, though (fortunately) not comparable to movie sets nowadays. But the narrow location of the village would anyway not have allowed the giant machinery of today. I like the movie very much, though the story does not exactly correspond to the real first access to the top and the names of mountain, village and persons are fictional.

    My report with photos is on the website of Michael Barrier (Disney expert in US). Werner Schrämli, Kreuzlingen /Switzerland:
    http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Essays/Third%20Man%20Set%20Photos/ThirdManSet.html



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