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A Climber's Peek at Views From the Top

January 13, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

Now that "Cliffhanger" has hit the video stores, it's high time for a look at that and other cinematic "peak experiences."

Sylvester Stallone's movie may have realized gross receipts of $80 million, but climbers focused on its gross implausibilities.

Admittedly exciting opening scenes, for instance, find a young lovely, a first-time climber, following "her man," surrounded by snowcapped peaks, up a spire that would give a more experienced climber pause in any season. As might never happen, the buckle of her harness all but melts during rescue efforts. The story, based on a premise by climbing guru John Long, is set in Colorado but was filmed in Italy's Dolomites. The dialogue wouldn't see the pages of a self-respecting comic book, but the views are worth the price of a rental.

From this climber's point of view, however, there are any number of better choices:

"The Eiger Sanction" (1975), with Clint Eastwood starring and directing, still offers some of Hollywood's most convincing climbing footage, both in its early training sequences and later on the legendary north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps.

Presaging Indiana Jones, Eastwood opens the film as an art professor under the lustful gaze of female students. Dialogue in general, and Jack Cassidy's characterization as a way-over-the-top stereotypical gay in particular, continue to smack of political incorrectness from a '90s vantage, and the rambling film could stand some editing, but Eastwood fans and climbers alike are sure to love it nevertheless.

"K2: The Ultimate High" (1992) proved more successful as a play with dialogue focusing on character development and the relationship of two climbing partners in the face of potentially fatal crises. The Pakistani mountain setting--presumably K2, the second tallest peak on Earth, but actually Mt. Waddington in British Columbia--and relatively thrilling climbing sequences save the film version; Michael Biehn plays a self-centered lawyer, while Matt Craven wrestles between mountain yearnings and responsibility to wife and new son.

Released as part of a National Geographic "Great Explorers" box set this year, "Return to Everest" documents the 30-year anniversary of the historic climb of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

The documentary traverses, says the narrator, "not only the great landforms of Earth, but a less visible geography, the private landscapes of (Hillary's) passage through the years," including the death of his wife and daughter in a plane crash, his son Peter's near-fatal accident in the Himalayas, and a reunion with Norgay. Footage of the 1953 expedition is dramatic. The film ultimately focuses on Hillary's formation of a Himalayan Trust to support the building and staffing of 22 schools across Nepal.

"The Mountain" (1956) is long on heart, short on realism and mostly just plain hokey, but Spencer Tracy is always great to watch.

Here Tracy's a retired, respected climber, now a poor shepherd, with an incredibly greedy younger brother (played by Robert Wagner) who is not above taking the diamond from a dying Hindu's nose. The younger sibling persuades the scrupulous elder, against his better judgment, to again scale the Alpine peak overlooking their village so that the creep can plunder victims of a fatal air crash. Climbing sequences would embarrass most climbers, but E.G. Marshall and Claire Trevor in important roles add up to enjoyable viewing.

Other films set in the peaks or involving climbing to a lesser extent include "Lost Horizon" (1937), "North by Northwest" (1959), "For Your Eyes Only" (1981), "Five Days One Summer" (1983), "Shoot to Kill" (1988) and most recently, and featuring the best plane crash ever and great moral dilemmas to boot, "Alive!" (1993).

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