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Making a Movie Out of a Mountain : Climbers Give High Marks to 'Cliffhanger's' Realistic High-Altitude Action Sequences

June 02, 1993|BILL STALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER, Bill Stall, who covers California politics for The Times, has climbed since the 1960s

For more than a year, American rock climbers and mountaineers have looked forward to the release of the Sylvester Stallone film "Cliffhanger" with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.

Anticipation was fueled by climbing-world gossip that the producers of "Cliffhanger" had hired some of the world's best climbers as crew members and consultants and were spending considerable time and money to make the film authentic.

The apprehension concerned Stallone's Rambo image and the possibility that gratuitous violence and outlandish stunts--needed to make the film a commercial success--would overwhelm any realistic depiction of what climbers do, and why.

Curiosity about the film within the relatively close-knit climbing world was also fired by a long-simmering controversy over the origin of the "Cliffhanger" story, involving two well-known climbers who also are writers, John Long and Jeff Long--no relation (they apparently don't even speak to each other anymore).

Stories of the film's genesis even involve a real-world climbing fatality and the crash of an airplane with a fortune in illicit cargo into the winter fastness of the California mountain wilderness.

Now that the movie is out (it took in $20.4 million in the four-day holiday weekend), the climbing world's anticipation and apprehension both have been fulfilled. The initial reaction of climbers to "Cliffhanger" is that many of the mountain scenes are impressively real even though the context of the climbing action--a wild battle with international money thieves--is absurd.

Those who actually climb vertical rock faces for fun were impressed with the technical realism and the spectacular mountain scenery of the Dolomites, an Alpine range in northern Italy.

"I liked it," said R. J. Secor of Pasadena, the author of a hiking and climbing guidebook to California's Sierra and a member of the American Alpine Club, the oldest mountaineering organization in the country. He saw the film at a special screening that included groups of climbers. "The action really moved. You couldn't tell when it was Stallone climbing or the doubles. I liked that. All the climbers I was with liked it."

Ted Vaill, a Malibu lawyer and longtime Alpine Club official who has made a small-scale expedition film of his own, said "Cliffhanger" raised Hollywood depiction of climbing to a new technical level, beyond such films as "The Eiger Sanction" with Clint Eastwood in 1975 and Fred Zinnemann's film "Five Days One Summer" with Sean Connery in 1982 (a hit with climbers, but not at the box office).

"Nobody can beat 'Cliffhanger' for the spectacular special effects," Vaill said.

Some quibbled with details, but mostly the sorts of things that would only offend climbers.

For example, Vaill said he would never climb in a blizzard in just a T-shirt, as Stallone's character Gabe Walker does in one scene. Secor was appalled when a buckle on one character's climbing harness bent and broke, creating one of the first of the movie's tension-filled developments. "When that harness broke, I thought, 'This is another world,' " Secor said.

The early "Cliffhanger" climbing, before the characters are caught up in the chase for $100 million that falls from the villains' airplane, involves the sort of moves over rock that world-class climbers actually make. The major difference is that most climbers would never attempt such things several thousand feet off the ground without being safeguarded by a roped partner to check themselves in case of a fall.

Movie crew members who were climbers were impressed with Stallone's efforts to learn techniques and to do the climbing himself up to the point where the doubles had to take over. Stallone actually did hang suspended from his left hand gripping a ledge that overhung thin air. What was not evident was an eighth of an inch-diameter cable that protected him in case he slipped.

One character's fall from Stallone's hand early in the film was "real," too. Actress Michelle Joyner hung over the void, backed up only by a wire running from her climbing harness up and out through her sleeve.

Then, Georgia Phipps, Joyner's climbing double, actually plunged 400 feet before being caught by a cable. Computers spliced the Joyner and Phipps scenes together digitally.

The principal climbing doubles were American Ron Kauk, 35, who set standards for very difficult climbing in Yosemite Valley in the 1970s, and Wolfgang Gullich, a national hero in Germany who pioneered some of the world's most extreme ascents before he died in an auto accident last August at the age of 31.

The climbing-unit camera operator was David Breashears, an American Alpine Club member from Newton, Mass., who is well-known among U.S. mountaineers for both his climbing and filming of mountaineering expeditions. The lead rigger was Jim Bridwell, a legendary Yosemite Valley climber and professional guide.

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