Herein we talk about the five mountain movies that died in the Hollywood hills. Before you navigate the dangerous terrain of Hollywood adventure movies, manage your entertainment risk by being aware of these piles of yak dung:
This movie did well at the box office worldwide on name-draw alone. When the movie emerged in 1993 Stallone still carried the cachet of his breakthrough “Rocky” series. Believe me, his name is all there is to recommend “Cliffhanger”. The movie opens high on the Sierra crags of northern California, where sheer stupidity and a faulty harness result in the death of a female climber — a plotline that haunts Stallone and the movie from start to finish. Fast forward to the evil criminal John Lithgow, a ruthless killer in pursuit of the millions he has skyjacked which also end up plummeting to earth in those self-same mountains. Stallone is dragged back to his nemesis (with the emphasis on mess) amid agonizing self-doubt and countless, unrealistic climbing heroics. He saves the day, the cash, and all his fragile relationships. If you have any movie-going integrity or any love of climbing, stay away from Cliffhanger. If you do consume this visual junk food, enjoy it like a Twinkie: sickly sweet and full of shameful regret.
Can anything be worse than Cliffhanger? Why yes! Vertical Limit is much worse; an absolutely hateful climbing flick, right from the requisite opening subplot disaster, to the Pakistani cannon shots across disputed Kashmir, to the evil corporate magnate, driving a whole cadre of foolish climbers to their deaths. The film is a ridiculous caricature of a ridiculous caricature. Everyone arrives in the K2 Base Camp to join the bacchanals thrown by the industrialist–and no one suffers any acclimatization difficulties. No one vomits after their prodigious drinking bouts at 17,000+ feet. Needless to say, the commercially driven expedition proceeds against all common sense. The summit party must be rescued from the disastrous impact of yet another high Himalayan storm, imprisonment in cavernous crevasses, and their own utter stupidity.
The film opens with a brother who saves himself and his sister by cutting the rope that sends his father to his death; he redeems himself by saving his sister yet again. But that’s about it as far as good news goes from a climbing perspective. The mountain has finished off everyone in the expedition and the rescue party. And what the mountain couldn’t do, the Pakistani nitroglycerin they carry to blow the crevasses takes care of everyone else — mercifully. Are there any great climbing sequences to redeem the film? No.
Scream of Stone
Some people love Werner Herzog, some hate Werner Herzog. I had no opinion until I saw The Scream of Stone; now I really detest Werner Herzog.
The film is full of Herzog’s existential angst which translates into turgid writing, monotonous one-takes, planes landing, helicopters hovering, crumbling relationships, capitalist exploitation, and mysterious old native women whose very presence portends disaster — isn’t that what old women in movies are for? Then there is a sprinkling of climbing — essentially a competition between the young gymnastic wall climber and the old contemplative Messner-like alpinist who will make the first summit of Cerro Torre? This ice-covered, needle of a mountain is a relatively low peak in Argentinian Patagonia. But according to our old scrambler, the most difficult ascent in the world–and he has done every 8,000M peak known to man.
Spoiler alert: the conclusion is as bleak as the rest of the film. The wall climber falls when he is only ten feet short of the icy summit and breaks his back on the arrest, where he dangles to the final credits. The old alpinist, having recklessly tackled the “north face”, reaches the summit that has preoccupied him for so many years, only to find that a fingerless, Mae West-worshipping lunatic beat them to it long ago. I told you–no redeeming features. If you must be so masochistic as to want to open this up on YouTube, it is an hour forty-six. Slide up to the last twenty minutes where you will see all the climbing of note and, of course, the obligatory gale-force storm.
Can you get a scream out of a stone? Only if it sits through this entire Herzog howler.
Into Thin Air
OK, Jon Krakauer did the self-purging required to rid himself of the demons that he brought back from Everest in 1996, when fellow climbers died in a monumental storm they had no business being out in. Krakauer’s version of the story is controversial. Many accuse him of not taking enough time to reflect more thoughtfully on all the tragic events of that day. Without deeper knowledge and opinions of those who had been involved in summit pushes with crowded conditions, late descents and killer weather, he got the book done quickly and on the market.
The made-for-TV movie followed shortly thereafter. While it ignored some of Krakauer’s more supposedly inflammatory accusations, it is the victim of the unholy rush to capitalize on the public’s morbid fascination with the event before other crimes and catastrophes distracted them. This is a movie I think you should avoid.
Meanwhile, if you must indulge your morbid curiosity to watch “Into Thin Air”, at least have a look beforehand at the David Breashears’ documentary “Death on the Mountain”, produced in conjunction with PBS in the States. It is a pretty reasoned attempt to get you into the heads of the folks for whom that experience was so life-changing, physically and emotionally.
I can’t leave this list without including the stupidest, kitschiest, most ridiculous, and most irredeemable climbing film ever produced. Of course, having said that, I have just guaranteed that many of you will race to YouTube to find “Killer Mountain.” Now, I confess that we have had so much fun with our Sasquatch/Yeti legends lately that for a brief and shining moment I was hoping the monster lurking in the bowels of the “killer” mountain was none other than our evolutionary cousin the ‘Squatch, or at least his white-coated Himalayan counterpart. No such luck. This monster is a giant, evil, lizard-shark that lurks in the crevasses and fissures of the mountain, waiting patiently for expedition after expedition to provide it with tender human flesh coated with high-insulation down. Note also that they carefully discard all bones not wanting to risk their innards with an errant jagged femur. It seems that when expeditions fail to return, they fail to return in their entirety–so no one knows of the mountain monsters. How convenient is that?
When at last yet another expedition seems to have vanished from the face of the earth a rescue is mounted, but they too are oblivious of the sharp reptilian fangs that lie in wait. Don’t bring this movie up on your tiny screen. There is a lot of climbing, but none worth noticing. If you do go against this good advice, I am guessing that like me you will be hoping the monsters feast on everyone involved. I was hoping the producer, director, and scriptwriters would be thrown in for good measure.
What about five of the best?
Now I’m not saying that every climbing dramatization is as bad as these five AMS turkeys, although after years of watching I am convinced that very few could even qualify in my mind as ‘acceptable’. Nevertheless, here are the five ‘best of the worst’ climbing dramas: cue the unexpectedly high winds and driving snow…