Mountain Movies: Fiction & Non-Fiction

Lights, Camera, Action!

The Alps.
The Alps. | Source

Mountains on Camera

There is no getting around it. There is something in us that longs for the heights. Or, to put it another way, the heights, whether Pike's Peak or another comparable natural wonder, simply leads us upward. I mean not just the eye but the heart as well. In The White Tower (1950), Oskar Homolka as Andreas portrays a resentful Nazi-type who claims that the attraction is owed neither to the eye nor the heart so much as will. This Social-Darwinist is difficult for others to get along with in an early example of an ensemble film that pretty much favors Martin (Glenn Ford) and Carla (Alida Valli) a romantic couple. The overall narrative, complicated by several characters who climb, as well as some who stay behind, represents the Hollywood view. It is actually well-written, acted, shot -- all that sort of stuff. Filmed in the Alps, perhaps not realistically, it is as good an exemplification of a mountain movie as can be found in classical American cinema.

Naturally, one can debate whether or not the genre itself, rather small and confined, is of an American genesis rather than European. But the entertainment industry is like that, internationally feeding on itself. Many French comedies have been done over by American versions. Here, the characters are a mix. Claude Rains as Paul Delambre appears as an unappreciated writer locked into an unhappy marriage. His boozy soliloquy near the end might seem overdramatic, but not in a tent in the middle of a snowy windstorm. Alida Valli plays a woman who arrives by train to climb the very mountain her father climbed, then disappeared. No one had ever made it. Along with many other mountains, the Kandermatt remained unconquerable.

Remember the Writer

The White Tower is also a 500+ novel in paperback by James Ramsey Ullman. It was first published in July of 1945, so it must have been written in anticipation of the end of Western hostilities. On page 173, he writes about the mysterious majesty of the novel's mountain, having endured WWII, perhaps all the while "towering" above: "And then, finally, Kandermatt. The peaks, the valley, the remote empty inn. . . . The months passed, and then the years, and the fury and clangor of a world at war became no more than a half-remembered nightmare hidden away behind the white mountain walls." On page 465 the American is having a harsh dialogue with the German that is recreated in the movie. It is a little more lengthier with wordy descriptions, but there is that same sense of culture clash. The American suggests that the two climbers share the burden. It gets trickier the higher they go. They are almost finished. Their destination is in sight. But Andreas adds a little spin not duplicated in the movie: "I am a German climbing for Germany, and you are not climbing for anything. . . ." At the foot of the mountain, the German (because this is how the author refers to him) would have been right. The WWII aviator, lingering on, had no passion for climbing, only wanting to accompany Carla, thinking that the climb would only go so far. Later, he changed. He became obsessed. By page 474, the American, alone, makes it: "So this is the end . . . This is the dome of the temple, the crest of the flight. This is the soldier's victory, the lover's consummation. This is the top of the mountain. . . ." I quote these passages in wonderment, never having known more than having accomplished a Blue Ridge Mountain trail rated high for being hard. It mostly went upward, very eyeful in the Autumn with colorful leaves. The Blue Ridge is an old mountain range, no longer sharp and tall as it once was. What is it like to climb a mountain in the Alps? Maybe this renowned author of mountaineering has it exactly right.

Mountain Climbing Danger and Drama

In The White Tower there are scares and thrills as the climbing party makes its way upward. But in Touching the Void (2004) a Sundance documentary, directed by Kevin MacDonald, an Academy Award winner, the fact that climbing mountains might not just be dangerous but insane as well is drilled in time and again. The setting is the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. It is approximately 21,000 feet to the top. In White Tower, the American soldier (Ford) remarks how foolish it is to be so far up and not be in an airplane. But the high up, uninhabited slopes of snow and ice, is the unquestioned domain of the inveterate mountain climber, who knows all that, and shrugs it off.

One also has to remember that non-fiction documentaries are movies, too. There are certain conventions, many of which are used more deftly by some filmmakers than others. Thus, there is the employment of music, intervals of silence, and sounds, such as huge icicles being broken, or interminably howling wind, as well as words writ large, including Day One, Day Two, and so on. A few interesting details are highlighted, such as the use of gas to "brew" snow and ice into water. It takes a while as dehydrated climbers desperately await a necessary quantity of needful water. Before he falls, Joe describes the use of hammers and how his last swing before the fall did not "sound" right.

The Peruvian Andes

From Up Above in the Void
From Up Above in the Void | Source

Simon and Joe

Here is the thing. Touching the Void is real but still a story. Its recreation involved actors, in addition to a great deal of voice over. I take it that lengthy one-on-one conversations are either not frequent on all-day climbs or lengthy dialogue was not a directorial choice. In any case, the movie focuses on two climbers who start out together, then separate, since Joe breaks his leg near the top, plummets, and not only literally hangs by a thread (in this case a rope), but endangers Simon's life as well. All of a sudden cosmic morality enters the picture. Had this been the right thing to do? Joe admits to being a rather lapsed individual when it came to religion. He simply faced up to an imminent death that he fought against as best he could. He fell into a crevasse, landed, found his way out, and developed painful methods of advancing downward. He must somehow keep his head in temperatures well below zero leading eventually to sun-drenched areas. At the same time, Simon shows up at the camp below, where Richard Hawking, playing himself, awaits the pair with pack animals at a shallow, scenic lake. Here the weather is balmy. Simon looks distraught and unraveled. He is undergoing something inside as well as the accompanying exhaustion and frostbite. Ultimately, the entire climbing community had to arrive at some sort of realistic assessment of what happened. It was not pretty. Simon assumed Joe dead, as did Hawking, who dallied an extra day or so just to make sure. But somehow Joe cheated death.

Simon Yates

Joe Simpson

Now That You've Seen the Movie. . . .

Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson, is a rewarding read. It is as close as the arm-chair climber will ever get to the real thing. Compared to Simpson's literary account, the movie's voice-over commentary is relatively skimpy. In print, one encounters a detailed account of the entire ascent and its tragic descent. It makes ample use of technical terms whose definitions can be found in a glossary at the end of the book. It includes in italics a complementary account by Simon. Simon struggles to come to grips with what he did -- cut the rope, leaving Joe for dead, or assuming as much. But the main item, to my mind, is that in addition to being complex, climbing involves a unique relationship. Simpson is always commenting on his own mood as well as honing in to how Simon feels. Whether tethered by a rope or not, the two climbers are a distinct unit. There are times when progress is ridiculously slow, or delayed by mounds and mounds of powdery snow that has to be brushed aside before continuing on solid or semi-solid turf. There are setbacks, too, such as slides next to deadly blocks of fast moving ice. Enormous drops enter into view as well while a working knowledge of famous climbers who met their end in just that manner comes to mind. Simpson's long rendezvous with death takes on epic proportions, entailing quotes from Shakespeare somehow memorized by way of Lawrence Olivier.

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