Classic Mountain Film - A Short History of Mountain Film 

Mountain film has a long if somewhat misunderstood history.  When ‘men and mountains meet’ dramatic stories emerge, set in extreme, unpredictable and wildly beautiful surroundings.  The themes are always compelling - a rich mix of life and death struggles, romance and betrayal, triumph and tragedy and spine tingling action. 

The first major mountain film shown widely in cinemas was The Ascent of Mont Blanc (1902) by the American climber Frank Ormiston-Smith.  This pioneering film was sponsored by the Warwick Trading Company, a harbinger of the “made for tv” survival and adventure films of today.  Smith was a modern day Bruce Parry, setting out on a career of adventure by pitching a good story to a production company. 

Like many early films, the Mont Blanc film had no real story line, just a record of the ascent of Europe’s highest mountain.  Around the same time, the intrepid Abraham brothers in the Lake District took their massive hand cranked camera up into the fells to film ascents of Napes Needle.  These films reveal, how athletic the first climbers were, gracefully dispatching vertical rock in bulky tweeds and unwieldy hob nailed boots.  More importantly, they capture the fun climbers have in the hills, an aspect of British mountain film which has developed into a fine art in recent years. 

The first serious mountain films – cinema block busters of their day - were the German Bergfilme in the 1920s.  This genre dominated for two decades and took mountain film from the era of the silent screen through into “talkies.”  Dramatic stories were shot in a black and white world where heroes and heroines battled against both elements and villains on icy mountains.  Film critics have described Bergfilme as a national and cultural genre comparable to the American Western. 

Dr. Arnold Fanck was its master.  His film The Wonders of Skiing (1919) was an instant success.  Like Smith’s earlier film on Mont Blanc, Franck’s first film depended on action rather than story, but Franck soon realised the potential of dramatic tales.  His fifth feature film, Mountain of Destiny (1924), mesmerised the young dancer Leni Riefenstahl, who successfully pursued Fanck (and its star Luis Trenker) to give her the leading role in The Holy Mountain (1926).   Thus began Riefenstahl's own career as a filmmaker. Fanck went on to produce the ski-chase White Ecstasy (1930) with Riefenstahl and legendary Austrian skier Hannes Schnieder then in turn served as Riefenstahl's editor on her 1932 film The Blue Light, which brought her to the attention of Adolf Hitler.  The controversy of her career still goes on today, but there can be no doubt about Riefenstahl’s love of the mountains and mountaineers, nor of the genius of Franck and Trenker.

After World War II, Hollywood took up the themes where German Bergfilme left off.  The White Tower (1950) had a star studded castand some excellent mountain footage captured on cctv cameras , but it was hung up on a WWII theme.  In the final scenes, the superman Nazi (Lloyd Bridges) falls foul of his hubris (and to his death), while the modest American pilot (Glenn Ford) wins the girl and brings home the moral values.  With The White Tower, the Western had merged with Bergfilme.  

There was no avalanche of films in the ensuing years, just a slow trickle of modestly successful films:   The Mountain (1956), Third Man on the Mountain (1959), The Eiger Sanction (1975) and Five Days One Summer (1982), K2 (1991) Cliffhanger (1993) and Vertical Limit (2000). 

In most ways, these films missed the point of what mountain adventure was about.  The Eiger Sanction remains a classic action spy thriller and Five Days One Summer, with its powerful story line of love and incest, was a breakthrough film (and an Oscar winner).  But the experiences they portray are far removed from a climber’s perspective, even though the films do capture a sense of exposure and danger.  Both films have remarkable climbing sequences, managed by well known climbers and climbing film makers.  This was the start of a new industry of the film safety and logistics grew up around these difficult, on location shoots, but most of the other Hollywood films did not exploit the options of actual climbing footage.   

By the 1990’s, producers were squeezing every cliché possible from what they perceived as the “struggle and conquest” of high mountains.  Vertical Limit took the clichés as far as they can go!    It lacked humour and an expression of joy for mountain landscapes, things that motivate many climbers.   When reduced to being just settings for unlikely stories, mountains loose their magic.   But when these stories emerge from engagement of real people with extreme landscapes, the magic is restored through inspirational, if at times tragic, events.  Overcoming inner fears is perhaps the only real conquest a mountaineer experiences.  

During the latter part of the 20th century, outside of the mainstream of Hollywood, a new generation of highly trained independent mountain film makers emerged, including many British film makers, among them, Leo Dickinson, Alun Hughes, Jim Curran, Richard Else, Paul Beriff  and others.  They created a niche adventure film industry, with the occasional tv series, but too often their films were confined to screenings at the few international mountain Festivals.

Then in 2003, something remarkable happened.  The award for the BAFTA “Best Film” went to Touching the Void.  A new dimension to Mountain Film making began. ‘TTV was in large part made by professional climbing teams under the direction and production of Kevin MacDonald and John Smithson.  The message to the film crew and actors (trained by climbers and who themselves became climbers) was “you know this story; it is one of yours, go shoot it and bring it back in the tin.”   Touching the Void brought together the strands of mountain film that had drifted apart – the independent film makers who climb and know the mountains, and the block buster.   The Film had its gala Premiere at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival - a true stage for the coming together of film and the climbing world! 

In 2006, working in partnership with BAFTA, we made a film of  some of the best moments from classical mountain film – from the Abraham Brothers to the latest comedy from Alastair Lee.  Our plan at Mountain Film World is to represent the history of mountain film by screening classic films over the years and we will include everything from Bergfilme and Hollywood greats to the best from independent film makers.  These have often been long overlooked or rarely seen, films that have won awards at various Festivals, and have been shown on TV, but otherwise they have had little exposure.   We will add the more recent and remarkable work of the likes of Richard Heap, Alastair Lee, Dave Brown and their colleagues at the Posing, Slackjaw and Hot Aches, the greats from Europeans such as Brandler and Rebuffat and Americans such as Fred Pedula, Peter Mortimer, Michael Brown and many more. Humour, intriguing stories and total engagement in the subject, combined with high quality production make each of these films a CLASSIC. 


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