Six Damn Fine Degrees #79: Mountain movies that peak my interest

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

There is apparently no shortage of movies set on or around mountains, mountain climbers and peak-seeking adventures in recent years according to my initial IMDb search. Yet when Julie asked me to follow up on her lovely piece surrounding Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air from last week, I felt hard-pressed to find such movies that I had truly enjoyed (or let alone had seen). Wouldn’t the glorious scenery of mountain peaks, the thrill of the climb, the horror of the fall and the brave men and women surviving all of that lend themselves ideally to dozens of great screenplays?

All I came up with at first, literally, were disasters, as even among my beloved ’70s disaster movies, mountains featured very last after every imaginable catastrophe involving planes (the Airport series, even its spoof, 1980s Airplane!), skyscrapers (Towering Inferno), boats (Poseidon Adventure, Titanic anyone?), an Earthquake and even a killer bee attack (The Swarm), and only then did they shove Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow into a truly awful one involving an Avalanche! (1978). Can we count Avalanche Express (starring Lee Marvin and Robert Shaw in his last role in 1979) in the same category?

There were, of course, more such questionable adventure flicks like Silvester Stallone’s star vehicle Cliffhanger (1993, using the Dolomites as the Rocky Mountains), Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut as a James Bond-style mountain-climbing agent in The Eiger Sanction (1975) or Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin fighting each other on The Edge (1997). I was also reminded of the visual effect overload that was Vertical Limit (2000) by Bond director Martin Campbell or the double volcano mayhem in Dante Peak’s and Volcano (senselessly competing at the box office in 1997) and neither one a peak of cinematic achievement. And then there were K2 (1991) and Alive (1993) or, more recently, 127 Hours (2010), all telling of extreme survival under fearsome conditions around mountain areas. I could have also ventured into German classic Der Berg ruft (1938), one of the less propagandist films of the Nazi era by mountaineer Louis Trenker or turn to documentaries like the incredible Free Solo (2018), telling of one man’s incredible obsession with free climbing.

Still, nothing really peaked my interest as much as I had initially hoped. I then turned to the question of what actually makes a great mountain movie. It obviously just wasn’t heroes using mountains to beat the odds or disasters striking in the mountain. It apparently also wasn’t just the lovely setting mountains would provide in the background or great special effects adding to a maximally heightened experience. Maybe if someone had finally managed to adapt Thomas Mann’s epic novel Der Zauberberg (1924) into a more decent film version, maybe I would have been satisfied?

Satisfied I could be, I believed, if mountains became emotional landscapes that were actually used for storytelling purposes, where they reflect the inner turmoil or outward conflicts of characters, or by films where mountains themselves become characters in their own right. Novels can pull off such metaphorical levels more easily, it seemed, and other types of landscapes (the desert, the sea, etc.) have done a better job throughout cinematic history. I would have also rooted for any film that was able to tell even a loud adventure story almost fully in mountain areas and not just use it as a pretty backdrop for one or two scenes. Wasn’t there at least a handful of examples that fulfilled my criteria?

You might have guessed that I did eventually find exactly that after researching many fan lists and pondering some more, so here they are, my 5 favourite true mountain movies:

#5 Where Eagles Dare (1968)

There is something truly satisfying about this wintery action fest entirely set in the Austrian alps during World War II and starring two of the toughest cookies of British and American cinema trying to invade and destroy a Nazi castle on top of a mountain: Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. The action is spectacular and in your face, the roles are brutish and the dialogue sparse, but oh do they gloriously explore every nook and cranny of their mountain setting with my all-time favourite scene on top of a cable car. Certainly not one of the most refined or multi-layered cinematic entries but one I gladly put on every time winter when Christmas comes round. Recently, when driving from Italy to Germany by car, there it was: Schloss Hohenwerfen, the filming location set in the Salzburg area, still looking stunning with the surrounding mountain scenery.

#4 Into the Wild (2007)

Harking back to Julie’s post from last week, I couldn’t go without selecting Jon Krakauer’s most famous book, his semi-documentary account of how young escapee Christopher McCandless left everything behind to go Into the Wild of Alaska. What starts as a still inspiring venture into the unknown soon turns into a duel between McCandless (a riveting Emile Hirsch) and the mountainous nature that closes in on him. His survival skills become his saving grace and eventually his doom and the adaptation by Sean Penn does a thrilling yet subtle job at making this into a moving encounter between Christopher and the forces around him. The images of man and wilderness captured here left a long-lasting impression on me, for sure.

#3 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

No list is complete without my Bond (my posts are my bond?), and my favourite among them does a perfect job at setting both major parts of the plot and almost all of the action in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. It’s Ian Fleming’s novel, of course, that was the blueprint for the evil mastermind with headquarters on top of ‘Piz Gloria’ and having our hero agent travel there to find him and smoke him out. In between, there are still truly spectacular scenes on skis, on icy roads and down a treacherous bob run and villain Blofeld (Telly Savalas) even sends an avalanche after Bond (George Lazenby) and love interest Tracy (Diana Rigg) while Bond eventually rescues the princess … eh, countess from the glorious peak as well. There’s nothing that makes me happier in the world of Bond and beyond than seeing these moments play out in, on and around the mountains of my very own home region in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

#2 Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

French director Olivier Assayas did something truly astonishing in writing and directing this marvellous mystery of a movie set in the Eastern Swiss alps of Graubünden. The story revolves around an ageing star (Juliette Binoche), who is supposed to play a role opposite a much younger actress (Chloé Grace Moretz), whose part made her famous to begin with. To prepare, she secludes herself alongside her assistant (Kristen Stewart) in the Maloja region, taking long hikes in between rehearsals and reflecting on her past and present states. The mountains surrounding them are at the same time imposing and beautiful, mysterious and dangerous and a strange weather phenomenon (the Maloja snake) becomes a turning point in Binoche’s and our sense of what’s real. Landscapes as shapers of psychological processes and powerful reflections of characters’ mental states? Count me in!

#1 Brokeback Mountain (2005)

The film that was a watershed moment for both the depiction of gay love in Hollywood also featured, of course, one of the most poignantly set stories surrounding mountains – even finally carrying one in its title. Based on Annie Proulx’s short story, director Ang Lee does a masterful job of counterpointing the wide-open spaces of Wyoming with the narrow-mindedness of US society and the closeted nature of the love affair between cowboys Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). The distant mountains here offer an escape and a world of possibilities to be themselves but at the same time, they function as an oppressive reminder that attitudes and fears of change sometimes stand as firm as these same mountains.

Finally, I ended up coming to peace with my search for truly worthwhile mountain movies. It started as a steep climb expecting the impossible and it ended up being a rewarding time at the top, looking down at what I found. If only I will find a way down from here! Will someone send Blofeld’s helicopter?!

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