fri 12/07/2024

Listed: The Best Mountain Movies | reviews, news & interviews

Listed: The Best Mountain Movies

Listed: The Best Mountain Movies

As Everest opens, theartsdesk dons crampons to clamber among the cinematic peaks

John Noel, pioneer of Himalayan camerawork in 'The Epic of Everest'

It has never been easier for cinema to capture the terror and splendour of the mountains. Cameras can do what they never could before, which is why Everest, released this week, gets audiences as close to the roof of the world as any multiplex experience ever will. But mountains are about more than altitude.

In this edition of Listed, we clamber about the history of cinema looking for the movies which tell us about the men and women - though it seems to be mostly men - who have brought summit fever to the big screen.


The Epic of Everest (1924)

“This isn’t Hollywood,” said Mallory. “Why do we need a filmmaker?” John Noel was the first great filmmaker of the Himalayas. His bewitching images of Everest, filmed on equipment lugged by sherpas and cleverly customised to withstand the elements, were the only successful product of this tragic 1922 expedition. He pointed his lens two miles across the gaping void of the North Col to capture the last images of Mallory and Irvine alive, and the dismal shot of their deaths being semaphored. Jasper Rees


The Blue Light (1932)

Leni Riefenstahl's films are coloured by the knowledge that Adolf Hitler commissioned her to mastermind – direct, edit, produce and co-write – the 1935 Nazi-glorifying epic Triumph of the Will. She had filmed Hitler in 1933 and, earlier, had seen him speak. The first film she directed was The Blue Light (Das Blaue Licht), an entry in the “mountain film” genre – she had first acted in such for 1926’s The Holy Mountain. Plots pitted man against mountain and, once the peak was conquered, enlightenment and fulfilment was the result. The Blue Light added a twist: Riefenstahl herself played an apparent witch who drove the men of her village to their deaths as they climbed during the full moon. Scaling the mountain herself, she found sanctuary in a hidden grotto illuminated by mystical blue crystals. The film culminates with the villagers violating the refuge. Hitler was certainly aware of The Blue Light, and it was integral to Riefenstahl’s entry to his inner cabal. An arresting film, but one to treat cautiously. Kieron Tyler


The Sound of Music (1965)

Irresistible: The Sound of Music as ur-text for those who aspire vertically. From Julie Andrews singing “I go to the hills when my heart is lonely,” we sweep onwards and upwards towards the heights (vocal, too) of that alpinist classic, “Climb Every Mountain”. Actually it’s sung by the Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood, in her final screen role) in the dark interiors of the convent, the only hint at the great outdoors being the light dawning behind a window. Wood was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and few realise that she was dubbed for this number by Margery McKay. The follow-up lyric, “Follow every rainbow/’Til you find your dream”, has made the number a classic for gala performances, recently reprised in Lady Gaga’s Oscar mêlée from the film this year. Tom Birchenough


Careful (1992)

The third film (and first in colour) directed by Guy Maddin, the Winnipeg auteur of silent cinema/early-talkie exhumation and psychosexual lost causes, is a rib-tickling riff on Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl’s mountain movies (see above) by way of Hamlet, Caspar Friedrich’s paintings, and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. It’s set in an Alpine community terrified that a loud noise or an extreme emotion will cause a devastating avalanche – all too likely given there’s an epidemic of barely repressed incestuous lust. Shot on thrift-shop sets draped in tinsel, webs, and gauze, Careful dazzles with a gorgeous alpenglow, its encoded amber (pictured above), turquoise, pink, green, lilac, rust, and yellow tints perfectly complementing the honed archaism of the crackly soundtrack. Graham Fuller


Alive (1993)

This gripping survival adventure is based on Piers Paul Read's excellent book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, about the 1972 air crash involving members of a Uruguayan Catholic old boys' rugby team. With a cast led by a young Ethan Hawke, director Frank Marshall overlaid the already gruesome tale - including the survivors eating the flesh of their dead friends - with nods to heroism and faith, much helped by John Patrick Shanley's often allegorical script. Veronica Lee 


The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (1995)

Is this a mountain movie? It certainly is in Wales, where a mynydd doesn’t have to reach the official height of 1000 feet. Hugh Grant’s posh junior cartographer crosses the border into mid-Wales to measure up a peak, only to announce that it doesn't meet the altitude required. The resourceful locals add earth so it can make the grade, while Grant falls for a lovely lass played with a wobbly accent by Tara Fitzgerald. Based on a Valleys legend heard and massaged by writer/director Christopher Monger, it's charming. No danger of vertigo. Jasper Rees

Touching the Void (2003)

This documentary retold the story of Joe Simpson's extraordinary escape from certain death in the Andes, as first narrated in his best-selling book about a 1985 expedition. Simpson broke his leg and his climbing partner Simon Yates chose to cut the rope from which Simpson dangled over a ledge in order to save himself. Both look haunted by the story 18 years on. The dramatised re-enactments don't quite do the trick but, filletted down, the 25 hours of interviews Simpson gave to director Kevin Macdonald do. There's a cameo on the soundtrack for Boney M's "Brown Girl in the Ring", which chimed in Simpson's hallucinating brain as he slid and scrambled back to life. Jasper Rees

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Annie Proulx's short story - first published in The New Yorker in 1997 - became a lauded Ang Lee film eight years later that was era-defining in its frank depiction of homosexuality set not among a community of urban sophisticates but in the wilds of Wyoming (hence the title, its phallic implications intact). Charting the unfolding relationship between ranch hand Ennis (Heath Ledger in a performance that should have won him an Oscar before the one that posthumously did) and rodeo cowboy Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), the film suggested its rural environs as an unexpected source of liberation - which is to say that society may pass judgement but nature tends not to. Matt Wolf 

North Face (2008)

Much more thrilling than Clint Eastwood’s earlier visit to the same mountain in The Eiger Sanction, Philipp Stölzl’s powerful film captured the race to get up the Eiger’s forbidding wall in 1935 when conquering Alpine peaks became a propaganda tool for the Nazis. If the politics felt a little crude, and the love story underwhelmed, the climbing footage, in which four mountaineers fight for their lives against cold and gravity, is simply astonishing. Based on the true story originally told by Heinrich Harrer in his mountain literature classic The White Spider. Harrer was in the four-man team which in 1938 made the first successful ascent. Jasper Rees

Plots pitted man against mountain and, once the peak was conquered, enlightenment and fulfilment was the result

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