There’s a particular lure to the mountaineering film, I think, probably because the mental strain and physical toil that is dramatized on screen is such the exact opposite of the theater-going experience. Of course, that can be said for tons of different genres, but the maladies and threats that come along with a mountaineering film – the lack of oxygen, the extreme cold, the ever-present avalanche threat – are particular and extreme in their terrors. (…)
It’s a very specific genre that offers up no shortage of dramatic opportunities, much like the submarine-thriller; your mountain movie has to be mightily incompetent to be really and truly bad. Next Friday sees the release of the newest entry to the genre, Everest, a star-stuffed (Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhall, Jason Clarke, Keira Knightley) retelling of the story captured in Krakauer’s fantastic book Into Thin Air; if the heart-pounding trailer is any indication, it’s going to be another classic.
So, before we scale the Everest peak, let’s take a look back and rank the top five mountaineering films of all time.
The Eiger Sanction (1975)
One of the forgotten classics in Clint Eastwood’s career, this movie is a bit overstuffed with plot but its mountain sequences are superb – as Clint’s assassin / history professor / mountain climber Dr. Jonathan Hemlock is forced to scale a Swiss mountain (the Eiger of the title) as part of an international conspiracy. Another 1970’s mainstay, George Kennedy, has a nice little supporting role as Hemlock’s friend / adversary.
Vertical Limit (2000)
Not as polished as the other mountaineering / action films on this list, but Vertical Limit boasts some exceptional direction by GoldenEye / Casino Royale helmer Martin Campbell and a cast that features the always-welcome Scott Glenn and Bill Paxton. This one takes place on K2, where the emotionally-traumatized son (Chris O’Donnell) of a mountain climber (guess how he died) scales the cliffs to rescue his sister (Robin Tunney) as shenanigans mount with a millionaire businessman (Paxton). The action subplot is a bit silly, but the cinematography is first-rate.
North Face (2008)
One of the finest foreign action films, this German film dramatizes a famed 1936 attempt to climb the North Face of the Eiger (yes, that same mountain from The Eiger Sanction). This is a stunningly photographed, faithfully old-school mountaineering film, with hints of the war to come dripping off the edges of the frame. An overlooked masterpiece that you should seek out.
127 Hours (2010)
Not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire is a tense and visceral dramatization of the famous story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), the American hiker forced to slice off his own arm after being trapped in a canyon.
Like a lot of great dramatic films, this is one that you can watch once – and may never want to see again. Franco is astonishing (he earned an Oscar nomination) and the movie is tremendously shot and scripted. Be forewarned, though – just Google the stories of in-theater audience reactions to the movie before you decide to watch.
A deliciously watchable blast of mid-1990s action, this is the best movie of the middle-part of Sylvester Stallone’s career – a jewel amidst dreck like Judge Dredd and The Specialist – and is a gorgeous, fun mountaineering adventure. Stallone’s haunted park ranger / expert climber Gabe Walker (again, guess why he’s so haunted) heads out on the bloody road to redemption, battling a gang of terrorists (headed up by John Lithgow) crash-landed in the Rockies.
The stunning opening sequence (parodied brilliantly in the Ace Ventura sequel) is one of the most fantastic mountain scenes ever put on screen, and the rest of the movie is just as enjoyable – with Stallone providing the muscle and Lithgow munching on the beautiful scenery.