It’s a little bit hard to imagine that Walt Disney was ever an avid mountain climber. Apart from a brief phase as a polo player that came to an end after he injured his back in 1938, Walt wasn’t much of an outdoorsman. But even if he wasn’t a climber himself, he had a lot of respect for people who were. More importantly, he absolutely loved Switzerland. He and his family had taken several holidays in the Alps. In 1955, he produced Switzerland, an entry in the People And Places series of documentary shorts, sort of a travelogue cousin to the True-Life Adventures. It was nominated for an Oscar but Walt felt he still hadn’t quite tapped the country’s cinematic potential. Or perhaps he just wanted an excuse to take more working vacations in Switzerland. In any event, the country and its landscape are the real stars of the 1959 feature Third Man On The Mountain.
Producer Bill Anderson found James Ramsey Ullman’s book Banner In The Sky, based on the story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn. Anderson brought the book to Walt, who probably gave the project a greenlight as soon as he heard the word “Matterhorn”. Eleanore Griffin was hired to write the screenplay. This was her first and only assignment for Disney but she had been a veteran screenwriter since the 1920s, winning an Oscar for the 1938 Spencer Tracy drama Boys Town.
Director Ken Annakin, who had previously helmed the UK productions The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men and The Sword In The Rose, was brought back into the Disney fold. The two young leads were Disney contract players. James MacArthur, last seen pretending to be an Indian in The Light In The Forest, played novice mountaineer Rudi Matt. His love interest was Janet Munro, fresh off the set of Darby O’Gill And The Little People.
David Niven was to play gentleman climber Captain John Winter but ended up being replaced by Michael Rennie, the star of The Day The Earth Stood Still and the 1952 version of Les Miserables. This would be Rennie’s only appearance in a Disney film, while Niven had merely postponed his Date with Disney Destiny. He’ll eventually show up in this column.
Walt assembled a first-rate cast and crew for Third Man On The Mountain but the location itself was always the number one priority. Unlike Darby O’Gill, which had substituted sunny California for its Ireland setting, Third Man would be shot on location in the shadow of the Matterhorn itself. More than that, Annakin wanted the climbing sequences to look as authentic as possible. Both the cast and the crew were given an intensive two-week training course, after which Alpine guides decided if the stars were capable of doing the stunt work themselves.
The physical shoot took its toll on the cast and crew, though no one seems to have been hurt too seriously. Both MacArthur and Munro ended up doing a lot of their own stunts, although Munro’s actual climbing time was a lot more limited. She ends up dangling at the end of a rope, hoisted up the mountain like “a bundle of firewood”. Needless to say, sisters weren’t exactly doing it for themselves in little Swiss villages in 1865 or most Hollywood movies in 1959, for that matter.
The stunt work is fairly impressive, especially for its time. Annakin does a terrific job staging these sequences, making it difficult at times to tell the difference between actual location footage and special effects. No movie is seamless, of course, but in general, it’s pretty convincing. You definitely get the sense that this was not an easy movie to shoot. Walt wanted to make sure that 1959 audiences knew exactly how difficult the shoot had been. He promoted the movie with a behind-the-scenes episode of Walt Disney Presents called Perilous Assignment.
The story is pretty much exactly what you might expect, even if you know absolutely nothing about this film other than it’s a Disney movie about mountaineering. MacArthur’s Rudi Matt works for his uncle (James Donald) as a dishwasher but dreams of being an Alpine guide like his late father. He sneaks out regularly to climb the foothills around the Citadel (the fictional name given to the Matterhorn), the mountain that cost his father his life.
On one of these trips, he rescues Captain Winter (Rennie). Winter knew Rudi’s father and intends to be the first man to conquer the Citadel. Against his uncle’s wishes, Rudi goes along as an apprentice but his recklessness almost causes an accident. Winter goes off to hire a more experienced guide (the great Herbert Lom as the sinister Emil Saxo) while Rudi trains and learns about teamwork. Lessons are learned, the mountain is conquered and dreams are fulfilled.
Dramatically, Third Man On The Mountain is pretty inert. But nobody’s watching this for the gripping plot. You watch it for the scenery and the mountain-climbing and on those points, Annakin delivers. Cinematographer Harry Waxman (who would later shoot such disparate films as Wonderwall and The Wicker Man) captures every inch of the breathtaking Swiss landscape. It’s easy to see why Walt fell in love with the place.
It’s also easy to understand why people decided to just drop by the set for a visit. One such visitor was MacArthur’s mom, the legendary Helen Hayes. She thought the movie looked like fun, so Walt and Ken Annakin gave cameos to her and MacArthur’s then-wife, Joyce Bulifant. They can be spotted as a couple of American tourists leaving the hotel. Both Hayes and Bulifant will be back in this column in considerably more substantial roles. James Ramsey Ullman, the author of the original book, also popped by to see how things were going and ended up in front of the camera.
Apart from the scenery and the stunts, Third Man From The Mountain isn’t bad so much as it is bland. MacArthur is better here than he was in The Light In The Forest but he’s just not in the upper echelon of charismatic Disney stars. Munro is pretty and energetic but she doesn’t have much spark with MacArthur. That’s not a knock on him. Munro’s previous costar was Sean Connery, after all. Almost anybody would pale in comparison.
Third Man On The Mountain was released in November 1959 and most critics found good things to say about it. But it was a failure at the box office, another disappointment in a year where only The Shaggy Dog had been a hit for the studio. Today, it’s considered one of Disney’s most obscure live-action features. They’ve never released it on Blu-ray and it isn’t currently available on Disney+, although you can rent or buy a decent-looking digital version in HD.
And yet, Third Man On The Mountain has had more of a lasting cultural impact than some better-known Disney films, thanks to a consistently popular ride at Disneyland. The Matterhorn Bobsleds opened at the park in June, just a few months prior to the film. Walt had been struggling with a concept for a toboggan ride for a couple of years. While on location for Third Man On The Mountain, Walt grabbed a postcard of the Matterhorn and sent it to Imagineer Vic Greene with a simple message: “Vic. Build this. Walt.”
Greene did exactly that, modeling his roller coaster on the Matterhorn itself. Over the years, the ride has been updated in ways that make its connection to Third Man On The Mountain more tenuous. The Abominable Snowman, for example, does not make an appearance in the film. But it has remained popular for decades, the Matterhorn becoming almost as visually associated with the park as Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.
Considering its connection to the ride, I’m surprised that Disney has ignored Third Man On The Mountain for so long. It’s no masterpiece but it’s a well-made little adventure movie that’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. Walt himself was happy with the way it came out, so you’d think that should count for something. It deserves better than to languish in obscurity.
VERDICT: Disney Plus