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REWIND : A Few Climbing Films That Rise Above 'Cliffhanger' on the Reality Scale

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.

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, for instance, 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.

"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.

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.

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

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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