Third Man on the Mountain: The Best Hollywood Climbing Movie You’ve Never Seen

Blog, Films

A long time ago (1959), Walt Disney produced one of the best (if not the best) Hollywood climbing films, Third Man on the Mountain. It’s “the best Disney live-action feature that you’ve never seen,” according to Karl Holzheimer, the film writer.

Third Man on the Mountain Cover

The cover for Third Man on the Mountain.

Switzerland had enchanted Disney during his vacations there and he wanted to create a film that embodied that charm. A James Ramsey novel, Banner in the Sky, which was loosely based on the first ascent of the Matterhorn (a.k.a. The Citadel in the film), provided the perfect story.

While the plot is classic family fun, what makes this movie truly stand out are the climbing scenes. Disney and his producers had the good sense to hire the amazing French climber and filmmaker Gaston Rébuffat. Among Rébuffat’s accomplishments are:

  • The first person to climb all of the six great north faces of the Alps
  • One of the primary members of the French expedition to Annapurna
  • Producing excellent climbing films like Étoiles et Tempêtes (You can watch it on YouTube)
  • He was also an exceptional mountain guide

Rébuffat also authored several classic climbing books, like Starlight and Storm, which is a wonderful narrative of his ascents of the great north faces.

Beyond the excellent cinematography, Third Man on the Mountain also stands out for embodying the ethos of the Golden Age of Alpinism—that blip in time when so many great peaks were first climbed, and thus opened to humanity. It makes sense that the Golden Age arrived on the heels of Romanticism. Climbing “impossible” mountains like the Matterhorn in the mid-19th Century required the Romantic attitude of spontaneous transcendental vision, of the irrational imaginative individual. Indeed, these qualities are carried on and honored in climbing today.

Third Man on the Mountain

A climbing scene from the movie.

Edward Whymper, the first ascensionist of the Matterhorn, once said:

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Third Man on the Mountain follows through on Whymper’s words and gives us an elegant adaptation of the early days of our sport and the ideals that made those ascents possible.

Janet Munro as Lizbeth Hempel in Third Man on the Mountain

Janet Munro as Lizbeth Hempel in Third Man on the Mountain

References:

New Heights: Walt and “Third Man on the Mountain”

IMDB entry for Third Man on the Mountain

Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Romanticism