“Vertical Limit” (2000)
These days, it’s hard to imagine the spectacle of one-time-Robin Chris O’Donnell scaling K2, the world’s second largest and therefore second-scariest mountain expedition. But spectacle is exactly what the preposterously silly 2000 survival flick “Vertical Limit” provides, for better or for worse. The film, directed by Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale”, the Ryan Reynolds-starring “Green Lantern”), never really makes a lick of sense and occasionally is dunderheaded to the point of being distracting. It is still a slick, competently made piece of disaster-movie storytelling. There’s even a typically juicy part for the great character actor Scott Glenn, who plays the fabulously named Montgomery Wick, the type of old-man mountaineering expert that these sort of movies require, and there’s also, oddly enough, a rare, early cameo turn from currently ubiquitous Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn. The plot is familiar: O’Donnell plays Peter Garrett, a National Geographic photographer and daredevil climber who, after losing his father in the film’s early moments, is tracked down by his sister (Robin Tunney). Of course, she suggests a nice, friendly jaunt up the cursed K2 incline, to be funded by a wealthy, sneering industrialist who is played in the signature key of Bill Paxton (by Bill Paxton). The resulting picture is occasionally thrilling, although it most definitely doesn’t get points for originality. Then again, this is a subgenre where adherence to the ingredients that have worked in the past can actually pay off, and “Vertical Limit” has a handful of kinetic set pieces that absolutely do what they’re supposed to do and then some. It hasn’t aged particularly well, but the solid performances of both Paxton and Glenn, as well as a few genuinely hair-raising sequences, make it go down easier than expected.
“The Wildest Dream” (2010)
One of the most fascinating docs made on the subject of mountaineering, Anthony Geffen‘s “The Wildest Dream” follows parallel true stories 75 years apart. Narrated by Liam Neeson, the first is from the 1920s, recounting the first ever, fateful attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest by legendary climber George Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine. The second tells the story of Conrad Anker, the man who discovered Mallory’s frozen body in 1999. Together with Leo Houlding, Conrad retraced Mallory and Irvine’s steps in an attempt to solve the mystery of whether they reached the summit or not. One of the biggest questions surrounding the location of Mallory’s body was whether he was on his way up to the summit or on his way down. Spliced with spine-tingling vintage mountain footage from the 1920s, the trailblazing persona of George Mallory, and the two loves of his life —his wife Ruth and Everest itself— make “The Wildest Dream” an infinitely compelling watch. As intoned by Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson, the letters shared between George and Ruth are endearingly insightful, not least in how they uncover Mallory’s maddening obsession with the mountain. When asked why he wants to climb Everest right before his departure, Mallory’s reply became the stuff of legend, as with three words he illuminated the insatiable and profoundly simple desire for conquest ingrained in every mountain climber: “Because it’s there.” Juxtaposed with Conrad’s story in the 1990s, namely his relationship with his own family, how he chose his climbing partner and so forth, some uncanny similarities emerge. The mystery of Mallory’s climb, including a missing photo of Ruth and whether he and Irvine were able to climb the perilous Second Step without the support of a ladder, give “The Wildest Dream” an even faster pulse. One of the greatest documentaries on the subject of recent times.
Franc Roddam‘s “K2” is plagued with similar flaws that cling to most every mountain climbing feature film. There’s poor characterization, obvious dialogue, predictable turns of events and dubious decision-making, to which you can add a cheesy ’90s electric guitar score. So you may wonder why we are talking about it? For one, it’s become something of a must-see for mountain climbing fans, and leaving it out of a feature that’s not as concerned with the merits of cinema as it is with the spirit of mountain climbing would’ve been disingenuous. For another, we see Michael Biehn and Matt Craven deliver a crucial and climactic exchange near the end of the film with a kind of emotional force that’s enough to almost excuse the film’s above mentioned shortcomings. Loosely based on the story of Jim Wickwire and Louis Reichardt, the first Americans to successfully ascent the K2 in 1978, the story follows two BFFs, Taylor (Biehn) and Harold (Craven) as they invite themselves to a billionaire’s expedition to summit the second-highest peak in the world, in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan. The personalities of the two friends are diametrically opposed: Taylor, the selfish womanizer, is contrasted with Harold, the married man who’s always out to help others. The film is full of action that’s no less thrilling for being predictable (an early avalanche is a good example), and there are some breathtaking bird’s-eye-view shots of the final climb. But the ultimate high in “K2” is much more personal. All clichés melt away for a few supercharged minutes between Taylor and Harold, when Biehn’s crowning acting achievement comes in the form of the exchange mentioned above, a speech about finding grace and nobility on the mountain. Couple that with Harold’s reasons for climbing earlier on —when he tells his wife, “I feel the most true to myself”— and you get a sense of the true mountaineering spirit that’s hard not to applaud.
True stories about scaling dangerous mountains more often than not revolve around some tragedy (see: “Touching The Void,” “The Wildest Dream,” etc.). So when something like Lucy Walker‘s “Blindsight” comes along, it gains extra points for being both innovative and inspiring. Walker directs Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind mountaineer to reach the top of Mount Everest in 2001, who was contacted by Braille Without Borders, an institution for blind children in Tibet. At first, Sabriye Tenberken (the co-founder of the institution, also blind) just wants Erik to visit her kids as a guest because his climbing adventures inspired them. But Erik wants more. He wants to show the kids what it really feels like to be up there. An expedition is formed with a group of six blind Tibetan teenagers, aimed at scaling the 23,000 foot high Lahkpa Ri peak that’s right beside Everest. “Blindsight” gets a bit sidetracked by the kind of sentimentality one expects from a documentary featuring blind children to have, but it remains an awe-inspiring gut-puncher of a story all the same. From the way the kids are shunned by their Tibetan community, who sincerely believe them to be blind because of sins committed in their past lives, to Erik’s short-fused temper and the glint of obsession in his eyes that’s present in all avid mountaineers — the mix of cultures and personalities turn “Blindsight” into a riveting experience. And it’s not at all predictable, which is ultimately very refreshing. Tensions rise in tandem with the altitude, and by the time it’s over, it’s not just Kyila, Tashi, Tenzin and the other kids who learn a life-long lesson. Climbing a mountain with all your senses intact is hard enough for most, so imagine doing it blind. Painstakingly detailed in the specific preparations and training for the kids, “Blindsight” appeals to anyone with a sense of adventure and proves that mountain climbing documentaries needn’t revolve around tragedy to be thoroughly absorbing.
“Scream Of Stone” (1991)
Oh God! What in seven hells is this, Werner Herzog? “Scream Of Stone” is so strange, so full of terrible acting and godawful dialogue, that it’s sure to never be featured on a Best Of Herzog list (and didn’t fare too grandly in our Herzog retrospective). But for our purposes, the film’s haunting imagery of mountain climbing and the grandiose ideas trapped inside the crevasse of its mountainous defects are enough. Based on an idea from mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who had previously worked with Herzog on the short documentary “The Dark Glow of the Mountains,” the story follows journalist Ivan Radanovich (Donald Sutherland, who seems puzzled by his co-stars) covering an ascent on the Cerro Torre, one of the peaks in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field of South America. The climb is in the form of a challenge between a legendary mountaineer Roccia Innerkofler (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) and athletic indoor-climber Martin Sedlmayr (Stefan Glowacz). Roccia doesn’t believe Martin has what it takes to climb a real mountain, but their first expedition ends with the former disappearing and the latter claiming victory. The media gets into a tizzy —especially since Martin’s more experienced climbing partner lost his life in the process— and challenges the young man to try again, this time alone. Though the director himself has somewhat disowned “Scream of Stone,” if you were to take away the amateurish aspects of the acting and script, you’d get a film that’s still very much Werner Herzog. Brad Dourif makes an indelibly eccentric appearance as a climber obsessed with Mae West and who left his fingers on top of a mountain along with his name. A native spiritual guide of sorts comes in and out of the film like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. The film is generated by one of Herzog’s core themes; the summit of man’s nature-defying ego. Dreams, memories and resplendent aerial shots of the Cerro Torre, as well as Herzog’s habitual enigmatic atmosphere, all work to make the almost hypnotically deficient “Scream of Stone” a mountain-climbing film quite unlike any other.
Sylvester Stallone… climbing… a freaking… mountain! If that thought there gets your gears a-goin’, then “Cliffhanger” —the big, dumb granddaddy of Hollywood rock-climbing extravaganzas— should have you in hog heaven. Director Renny Harlin has made some of the goofiest Hollywood action movies of all time, which is either a very good or a very bad thing. His second “Die Hard” film and his buck-wild shark thriller “Deep Blue Sea” both have their defenders, although it’s harder to get behind his ill-fated Andrew Dice Clay vanity project “Ford Fairlane” or later, more turgid work like “Driven” or “Exorcist: The Beginning” (and we’re not even getting into his pretty much unwatchable post-2010 canon). But “Cliffhanger” falls into the former camp: it’s sublimely, gloriously stupid, capturing a time in American culture when Stallone wasn’t an over-the-hill action hero falling back on his “Rocky”/”Rambo” mythologies to draw a crowd. Here, Sly plays superstar climber and rescue ranger Gabe Walker, who is discernibly a badass because he never fears danger and also because his best friend is played by Michael Rooker. John Lithgow plays the bad guy, because of course he does, but plot matters only so much in a movie like this. What matters is energy, feeling and attitude (and altitude), all of which the movie has in spades, even if it’s a bit dated. Within the genre, “Cliffhanger” is arguably still the one to beat.
There’s a good reason why Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi‘s “Meru” walked away with this year’s Sundance Audience Award documentary prize, the same one that’s prompted us to include it on this list even if it’s still doing rounds in U.S. theatres. This heart-stopping chronicle may have just redefined the impossible, death-defying mountain climbing documentary (which, as we’ve seen here, has a few excellent entries) once and for all. In fact, good luck ever topping “Meru,” which is not only a deeply visceral white-knuckler that will keep you exclaiming your disbelief out loud —and perhaps questioning the sanity of everyone involved— but a genuinely moving tale of superhuman perseverance and friendship. The doc centers on three friends and climbing-world superstars who try to scale the “unclimbable” Meru, a mountain at the base of the Indian Ganges river that features a perilous “shark fin” peak with crumbling, fragile qualities. The men attempt the feat, fail and almost die in the process, and one is badly wounded in a subsequent avalanche accident. But digging into all corners of their emotional and spiritual reserves, the trio attempts to brave the mountainside one last time. Co-directed and shot by one of the three climbers, Jimmy Chin, the intimate and personal yet also epic and vertiginous qualities of this stunning doc are jaw-dropping. Also worth noting is J. Ralph, and how quickly he’s positioned himself as perhaps the best documentary composer working today. His soaring score does “Meru’s” perilous ascent quite awe-inspiring justice.
Considering how tricky it is to bring this perilous activity to the big screen, there really isn’t much else that’s noteworthy in terms of narrative fiction. We’ve had some debates over including Danny Boyle‘s “127 Hours” or Frank Marshall‘s “Alive,” but we landed on disqualifying them, as neither ticked both “mountain” and “climbing” boxes. Clint Eastwood directed “The Eiger Sanction” in the ’70s, which we would’ve included had it featured just a bit more climbing and perhaps a little less outright bigotry (it’s hilariously outdated). “Third Man on the Mountain” (1959) is a decent Disney live-action film that’s both about climbing mountains and coming of age.
Then there’s the made-for-TV film “The Beckoning Silence,” which is worth seeking out as another fine adaptation of Toni Kurz’ story from 1936. And there’s 1986’s “The Climb,” starring Bruce Greenwood and detailing the summit to Nanga Parbat, though all our efforts in trying to find it hit the wall.
As the sub-genre has had more success in the documentary format, recommendations in that department come much easier. Worthy of checking out are 2012’s “K2: Siren of Himalayas” and “The Summit,” which scale the infamous K2 mountain in more artistically effective but perhaps less entertaining fashion than Roddam’s feature. At least two great Everest docs, the short “Everest” (1998) and the more old-school “The Conquest Of Everest” (1958), are well worth your time. “180° South” (2010) is a fun ride with all sorts of adventures, chief among them an ascent of the Corcovado Volcano in Chile. And finally, there’s “Reel Rock 7” a documentary of four gripping real-life climbing stories.
Time for us to descend this feature —throw us a rope in the comments below and tell us about some of your favorite mountain climbing films. Any thoughts on why is seems hard for narrative films to get the balance of story, character, and spectacle just right? Maybe there’s a film on the subject we overlooked?
— with Nicholas Laskin & Rodrigo Perez