“You want me to take you to the top of the mountain, within the sight of God, so that you can pick the pockets of dead people?!!!”
When a plane crashes on top of a mountain in the Swiss Alps and the official rescue teams cannot get near it, two local brothers set out on a quest to get to the wreckage scattered about the snowbound summit. Zachary Teller (Spencer Tracy), the oldest of the two, is the more experienced climber, and the only man to have scaled the unnamed mountain solo. He knows the huge rock like the back of his hand, but he has not climbed for ten years, having fallen badly on its slopes on two successive occasions, with the last incident even claiming the life of another climber. He believes that the mountain will finally claim him if he dares to conquer it one more time. But with the shocking news of the crash and of the death of his oldest and dearest friend, the guide who was leading the official rescue-party, added to by the risk of his younger brother, Chris (Robert Wagner), threatening to climb up to the crash-site, alone, in order to pilfer from the victims lying dead in the snow and ice, he finds he has no choice but to face his fears once again – if only to keep his brother alive and to try to stop his mission of merciless greed.
The two begin the ascent, but the cracks in their already strained relationship widen with each step that they take. Various dangers and perils await them, the mountain not yielding an inch to their endeavour. Chris needs Zachary and his expertise to get him to the top, and Zachary, against his better judgement, finds the climb exhilarating and realises that he needs to gain the summit in order to vanquish the ghosts of a terrible past, and to beat the mountain just one more time. But just how far brotherly love and honour can stretch will be tested to breaking-point, however, when the pair discovers a lone female survivor amongst the wreckage. Although Chris is furious that somebody has lived, somebody who could place his gold-digging enterprise in severe jeopardy, Zachary finds possible redemption in the girl’s survival against the odds. She represents hope in this damned scheme. And he wants more than anything to get her back down to safety.
But his brother has other ideas.
Based on Henry Troyet’s novel, The Mountain was adapted by Ranald MacDougall (the man who wrote the leviathan 1963 production of Cleopatra for the screen, as well as the classic We’re No Angels and the terrific ant-battler, The Naked Jungle, for Charlton Heston) and directed with slow-burn panache and intricate set-piece detail by Edward Dmytryck. It is a vigorous, though intimate yarn. It is also, quite surprisingly, little seen. Which is a shame as this is a story of quietly devastating power and grit, valour and sensitivity. It falls some way short of being epic, but then this wasn’t the goal of Dmytryck, who was more of a journeyman than a game-changer. It feels like a Sunday afternoon period yarn, something that will be snoozy but entertaining. But The Mountain plays a few tricks and has many moments that linger in the mind. It has a quite unique mood that is addictively sombre and, though never melancholy, is flecked with tragedy. The pace is never rushed, and yet the film is tense and taut as a rope with a swinging body at the end of it.
Dmytryck had dabbled in noir with 1944’s Philip Marlowe thriller, Farewell My Lovely, and dealt with the renowned court-martial drama The Caine Mutiny for Humphrey Bogart, so he knew a thing or two about evoking the darker machinations of human motivation, and the bitter poignancies of deceit. But he had also helmed quite a number of rough ‘n’ tumble outdoors adventures, such as Back to Bataan with John Wayne and Broken Lance with both Tracy and Wagner – and so he felt quite at home with a story that pitted man against nature as well as brother-against-brother. Curiously enough, he had also directed the hokey Dr. Moreau-style SF-chiller for Universal, Captive Wild Woman, in which Paula Dupree portrays the exotic results of an unlikely experiment to transform a female gorilla into a human woman. And there is certainly an element of the “exotic” in The Mountain with the almost magical discovery of Anna Kashfi’s Hindu survivor in the belly of the downed airliner. But, at its core, The Mountain, is about determination, holding steadfast to one’s sense of dignity and about facing the consequences of one’s actions. The titular edifice is very much a rock of ages, a shrine to the vanity and the destiny of Man and his dreams. Whenever the camera beholds it from down in the village or in the foothills, it looms like a spear of natural defiance, throwing down the gauntlet to all-comers.
The mountaineering scenes which dominate the movie are marvellously achieved and very thrilling without ever-resorting to over-the-top dramatics and implausible action. Manoeuvring about the rock-face is rife with white-knuckle moments, but none of these are elaborately played-out with unfeasible stunt-work. When the piton gives and the slack sends Chris plummeting down the deadly-narrow gorge, Zachary stands on the edge of the precipice and holds onto the rope with the selfless devotion of a zealot, his hands being sliced open by the speeding silk as he struggles to save his brother. Look for the wonderful touch as blood wells up in his grasp and drips away to stain the snow at is feet. We are not in the land of superhuman leaps across bottomless chasms. We do not have avalanches, wolves or armed bandits to contend with. In many respects, Dmytryck strives for realism. Compared to more modern adventures of this type – Cliffhanger being the most obvious, but The Edge and The Grey certainly biting into the same rough, physically and emotionally challenging terrain – this is fairly light on standard testosterone. But the power of this high-altitude drama comes from the intimate moral chess game played between the siblings, their battle of wills, and you’ll find that there is much noble machismo made manifest in the quiet struggle between right and wrong.
With our two leads dressed in thick shirts, a beret for Tracy and a blue Noddy-hat for Wagner (!), and with their trousers tucked into their socks, this is an old-world expedition. It is mind over matter and the secret of success is to keep that axe ready at all times. You can drop everything else, but not the axe. In some write-ups that I’ve seen, people seem to think this style of mountain-climbing isn’t possible and even scoff at the sight of the aging Zachary hoisting his body up the frozen cliff, but this is precisely how climbers once did it – and there is never a second when I don’t totally believe that Spencer Tracy’s over-the-hill mountaineer is negotiating narrow ledges, reaching for desperate handholds and scurrying up deadly gorges to haul himself over snow-lashed pinnacles.
It is telling that we spend a good ten minutes or so watching, enthralled, as Zachary moves along a treacherous ledge, when every painful grasp of rock could be his last, but just see Chris finally struggle to his brother’s vantage point without any of the same protracted suspense. We understand that we would have been there all day just watching this bigmouthed greenhorn get even a fraction of the way. Thus, it is Tracy who does all the hard work, and you don’t doubt his rugged dependability and his well-founded fears once.
But although I think the casting is wonderful in this film, and it is great to see E.G. Marshall revealing a more intelligent and sentimental side as the town official, it seems ludicrous to have Tracy and Wagner actually playing brothers. It wouldn’t have harmed the story at all to have had them as either father and son, or even, far more realistically, grandfather and grandson. The age-gap between them is quite staggering and a difficult concept to swallow. Tracy had actually played Wagner’s father only a couple of years before in Dmytryck’s Broken Lance, so this sort of relationship would have held much more water. Zachary brought Chris into the world from their poor mother, who did not survive the birth, and he was responsible for bringing him up, even blaming himself for the atavistic and dangerous way that he has turned out. So why the film’s treatment of the source novel couldn’t have altered things so that he could play Chris’ natural father is a little perplexing. It makes more sense and provides the plot with a stronger sense of familial pride and betrayal. It would be beyond any doubt why Zachary would be so determined to protect the more hot-headed and foolish Chris from danger and/or scorn. Some people have commented that it was vanity on Tracy’s part to assume such a tough assignment, and to keep the duo as brothers. A bit like John Wayne continuing to play the hero well past his logical sell-by date, or Roger Moore, for that matter. Hmmm, maybe. Both he and Wagner were actually very good friends and there was an understandable element at play here that Tracy was passing-on the baton to the younger actor, but there is no denying that he has his character attempt far more heroic physical action than the up-and-coming star ever gets a chance to.
But as far as I am concerned, this makes the ordeal all the fresher and exciting.
It is also quite unusual to find a drama of this kind that refuses to cater for a love interest. Many an audience member at the time the movie was released would have sighed when Chris first clapped his eyes on the beautiful Asian survivor in the firm belief that his character would suddenly soften-up, forget his avarice become smitten with the girl. That the film doesn’t make so obvious a move and, in fact, goes in totally the opposite direction is the ace up its snow-sodden sleeve. You realise that all bets are off with Chris’ subsequent actions, and the film takes on an otherworldly dynamic of frostbitten spiritual darkness.
Let’s look at the time that this film was made. 1956 was still part of an era in Hollywood when sets and backlots were in extensive use to recreate fabulous palaces and far-away environments, and The Mountain is full of painstakingly created snowy stages and rock formations to depict the harsh and unforgiving heights. Matte shots and opticals from John P. Fulton have Tracy and Wagner hanging precariously above lavishly painted farms and hamlets that decorate the ground far below them, the performers hanging off fabricated rock walls with well-integrated mountain ranges and cloud patterns in the background. But this is also a production that makes extensive use of location shooting, with the cast and crew very definitely occupying the valleys and the high alpine meadows of Chamonix in the French Alps to great effect. There is also a lot of genuine climbing footage incorporated and it looks generally very good. The most impressive thing about all of this is that even as adventurous as it gets, you are always under the belief that the two brothers are scaling a real edifice and that we are right alongside them for the arduous climb. Once we reach the top, we are in the province of ice-covered foam a la Ice Station Zebra and Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman, and despite the set-bound limitations, the eerie scene of forlorn carnage is quite splendid.
The photography, courtesy of VistaVision, is from Franz Planer. Having worked on numerous adventure pictures before, even ones with complicated special visual effects needs, such as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T ( he had a thing for high numbers as well as high mountains, it seems), he copes well with the incredible scenery that the characters compel themselves across. The environs surrounding Mont Blanc, where much of the film was shot look astonishingly vivid and rapturous. The authentic village and farmland look hugely appealing, and the film has a genuinely Alpine feel that couldn’t have been mimicked back in Hollywood. The opening shots of the tragic plane crash are fantastically achieved with miniatures, dry ice and billowing snow, plus a tremendous fireball as the plane has a wing sheared-off against a peak. It is true that the plane is moving incredibly slowly through the air, but then again even the Eagles in Space 1999 were no faster than this two decades later. Planer then tracks over the strewn debris and the quite grim image of bodies in the snow to enter the torn-open body of the craft with a great tease of a shot that clearly implies something is yet to be found in there. Some of his angles are quite clever and unusual, particularly those that seek to show us the landscape splashed far below the two mountaineers. There is a certain determination to inspire a sense of vertigo that is enjoyably successful. This is not a static film by any means.
The score is nicely old fashioned in many ways, though still a little bit unusual – which is another great facet. Composer Daniele Amfitheatrof favours a female choir to serenade the greater heights gained by the climbers, but the Russian émigré also uses some mysterioso elements with piccolo and clarinet to conjure up an aura of menace and spectral beauty, darkening the musical tone with the intentions of Chris and finding a more gentle and sentimental path for Zachary. Amfitheatrof had previously scored The Naked Jungle for Dmytryck
The theme of sibling contrast is well-executed. Although we clearly fall for Tracy’s honourable man, every man and beast in the area knows that he is a stand-up guy, and it is easy to despise Chris for his violent and selfish ways, you can appreciate how the two have battled to make ends meet over the years. Whereas Zachary is content to live out the rest of his life in the harmony of their high-field farm, it is perfectly understandable that the much younger Chris wants to escape from the tedium and the relative seclusion of such an existence, and perhaps head out to the big city. With his cool haircut and vulture-like aspirations he is merely the epitome of many rebellious teens who long to fly the coup. Again, this is why the scenario would work much more comfortably if Zachary were the boy’s father. Early on, we witness Chris putting the moves on a rich girl visiting the area … but this is doomed to failure when her arrogant and much older paramour eventually turns up. In a show of smug superiority, the wide boy even pays Chris for having kept his disposable “plaything” entertained before his arrival. Juxtapose this moment of trapped-in-time defeat for him with Zachary returning with his flock through the village and waving pleasantly up at his brow-beaten brother. Chris merely looks back with disdain, and the expression of perplexed upset on Zachary’s face is crushing. Chris will never change either, his only niceties towards his brother tempered with ulterior motives of manipulation.
Zachary is a simple man. He has his flock, his farm … and the mountain. Chris will never be happy, no matter how much wealth he earns, wins or steals.
Edward Dmytryck’s fabulous film very definitely influenced Renny Harlin and Cliffhanger. The twisted loyalties and strained relationship of the two climbers is aped by the torn bond between the rescue-men played by Stallone and Michael Rooker. There’s the plane-crash, obviously, and both wrecks are similarly laden with the sort of riches that drive men to do insane things. But there’s also that jaw-dropping shot of Stallone’s Gabe Walker traversing the side of the mountain and Harlin’s camera slowly pulling back and back until the muscleman is but a speck against the vastness of rock, which was clearly a reference to (well, nicked from, you could also say) the brilliant moment when Planer’s camera pulls slowly away from Zachary as he negotiates a ledge. Okay, so Dmytryck and Planer don’t have the technology to zoom out anywhere near as far away as Harlin does, but the point, the style and the effect of the shot is still exactly the same.
I had not seen The Mountain before this, and I loved the film that much that I replayed straight afterwards. It is not as emotional as it could so easily have been – which would possibly have dragged it down into the turgid morass of melodrama, but there is a curiously endearing spell that Tracy is able to generate that just lights-up the screen. He was always a terrific actor, always very watchable in anything – and l still find his portrayal of both Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde in the 1941 version to be pretty much definitive (although not as simply monstrous as Frederic March’s had been ten years before). You can’t help but feel for him when his kid brother slaps him around, bullying him in to selling the family farm, yet you understand completely when he finally agrees to go along with the foolhardy and amoral journey up to the top of the mountain. Zachary is the stronger personality of the two even if it takes a lot of pressure to make him shrug off his calm and easygoing, always forgiving nature. There is considerable depth to what is actually quite an understated performance. When he breathes “Don’t you hit me again” to his incendiary brother, you know that he means it … but also that the very act of threatening his kin has only hurt himself all the more. This injection of soul is what Tracy was always incredibly capable of conveying. He plays Zachary Teller in a very European manner, which is highly unusual for a leading American actor. Accent aside, you totally believe that this rather portly and un-agile-looking peasant has been farming in the Alps for decades, having assumed the family duties that have passed down from generation to generation. After being informed of his best friend’s death, he walks off across the meadow to face the sky-piercing cathedral of rock that claimed him … and the sight of the quiet tears that he sheds genuinely clenches your heart.
By contrast, Wagner is purely American. Well, he can’t help that, of course. He’s only young and he makes no pretence at affecting any sort of accent or mannerism that hadn’t been witnessed in a hundred Tinseltown flicks revolving around teenage rebellion before this. And yet, somehow, the duo work excellently together - a yin and yang of imploded devotion and bipolar dreams. The mountain has shaped them, moulded them and it will surely break them too, if they let it.
The Mountain is an excellent film, folks, and comes highly recommended.
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