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Third Man on the Mountain

Third Man on the Mountain
Disney DVD
1959 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame (or adapted Pan-Scan / 105 min. / Street Date September 7, 2004 / 19.99
Starring Michael Rennie, James MacArthur, Janet Munro, James Donald, Herbert Lom, Laurence Naismith
Cinematography Harry Waxman
Production Designer John Howell
Matte Artist Peter Ellenshaw
Film Editor Peter Boita
Original Music William Alwyn
Written by Eleanore Griffin from the novel Banner in the Sky James Ramsey Ullman
Produced by Bill Anderson
Directed by Ken Annakin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Disney's Third Man on the Mountain is one of the best of his live-action feature films, a solid adventure movie shot on location in Zermatt, Switzerland. Sturdy young hero James MacArthur, son of Helen Hayes, plays just the kind of determined but inexperienced boy hero Disney was looking for. He had a similar role as an English lad raised by the Indians in the previous year's A Light in the Forest. Rudi Matt is sort of a 1959 version of Luke Skywalker - instead of conquering a universe, our hero just wants to be a mountain climbing guide.

The movie is a gem of adolescent adventure, but Disney's DVD is a major disappointment in terms of quality. More bad news below.


Rudi Matt (James MacArthur) has climbing in his blood; his late father was the most respected guide in his town. His mother (Nora Swinburne) and uncle Franz (James Donald) force him to work as a dishwasher, hoping he'll secure a position as a hotel manager. Only the cook, old climber Teo Zurbriggen (Laurence Naismith) and Rudi's girlfriend Lizbeth Hempel (Janet Munro) encourage Matt in his dreams, until he meets up with legendary climber Captain John Winter (Michael Rennie).

Third Man on the Mountain is almost a perfect 'family' movie that shows Walt Disney's producing power at its best. It combines the director's love for Alpine locations and his respect of those wonderfully talented, inexpensive English actors.

The neatly engineered script maneuvers a half-dozen characters around a teenager's quest to be a mountain guide, softening those mountain clichés it can't avoid outright. There's the forbidding Citadel mountain in Zermatt, which most any human being on the planet will recognize as the model for the Matterhorn in the Disneyland park (we almost expect to see bobsleds zipping down its slopes and people waiting in line). It's a cursed mountain that none of the local guides will climb, especially not our hero's uncle, played with prudent resolve by genre favorite James Donald (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Quatermass and the Pit). Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) was by this time settled into mature adventurer parts, and would the next year play Sir John Roxton in the Fox remake of The Lost World. He's perfect as the dryly enthusiastic Englishman with mountain peaks on the brain, a lofty role model for an aspiring rock climber. Laurence Naismith (Jason and the Argonauts, (The Valley of Gwangi) is another sympathizer with the young hero's dilemma. All of these men have meaty roles, and the blessing of the script is that none of them are villains or heroes based upon their relationship to young Rudi Matt. Uncle, for instance, isn't a monster for opposing the boy's aspirations.

Even better is the story's handling of the 'villain' played by Herbert Lom, a dark and bitter climber from the next town. When the feuding guides are isolated in a hut high up on the Citadel, the spirit of the mountaineering quest seems to defeat partisan rivalry and old feuds. It's an excellent understated theme, and gives the great actor Lom something to play beyond his signature deep-dyed scoundrel.  1

The script has its dated aspects, but it doesn't present our hero as any kind of Mountain God-in-training. Rudi lies repeatedly to his guardians and to the famous climber. His dishonesty is unavoidable because it's obvious from the beginning that nothing will get mountain climbing out of this boy's blood. If it weren't for the purity of his aspirations, Rudi wouldn't even be a likeable guy - he neglects his worshipful girlfriend and tries to impress his elders with foolish stunts. The story must invent Klaus, a doltish rival (Lee Patterson of the '59 Jack the Ripper) to spur Rudi to treat Lizbeth decently. She practically has to steal Rudi's climbing shoes to keep his attention.

Third Man on the Mountain almost completes on DVD the set of desirable Janet Munro titles. With The Trollenberg Terror (is that Alpine sci-fi horror where Disney discovered her?), Swiss Family Robinson, Darby O'Gill and the Little People and The Day the Earth Caught Fire readily available, that leaves only The Horsemasters and Sebastian. Disney tended to make perfect casting choices for his family films but couldn't offer actors the opportunity to grow once they were famous, and the wonderfully talented and attractive Munro found herself having to start all over again post-Mouse, as did Hayley Mills and other juvenile stars.

James MacArthur was definitely an identification figure for kids my age (7-12) when he was popular at Disney. He fought pirates and Indians but had a mature determination in his eyes that made us feel that growing up wouldn't be so bad after all. He was briefly paired with Munro again in the Swiss Family Robinson movie, but as I say, Disney moved on. When the need arose for a juvenile 'romantic' lead for Hayley Mills in In Search of the Castaways, Michael Anderson Jr. got the nod.

Third Man on the Mountain has excellent location shooting, shot by 2nd unit Alpine experts Gaston Rébuffat and Georges Tairrez. For a while we're wondering if the rocks are mattes, or perhaps sets built at the foot of the real mountains to provide good backgrounds. The truth seems to be that the stars were expertly doubled (even pig-tailed Munro) for some very realistic climbing. Only a few shots stand out as Peter Ellenshaw mattes. A sideways view of the mountain peak from an 'impossible' angle anchored twenty feet out in the sky is a giveaway, as is the dramatically exaggerated little spur of rock that saves Rudi from what looks like a 5-mile drop. Disney always made sure a jolting visual like that was available for promotion purposes; the shot of Rudi dangling over the tiny plateau was hyped in the TV ads and on his television show almost as much as the broken staircase gag in the laterKidnapped. Helping greatly is William Alwyn's inspirational music score. There are a couple of songs here and there but they don't intrude as clumsily as in the Darby O'Gill movie.

The only dated aspect of the film is its relegation of most of the characters, especially Janet Munro's girlfriend, as boosters and accessories to Rudi Matt's quest. Lizbeth in particular lives and breathes only to please him, encourage him and show him the way. The female role here is to stand by her man, even if it means getting him out of diapers and onto his own feet. It's a great male fantasy and I held out hope for some wonderful girl to take my 7 year-old life into her hands, but in the real world women and girls usually want something for themselves too. Third Man on the Mountain could conceivably move up to David Lean status with the addition of more rounded supporting characters, and maybe a specific historical context - the accents in this Alpine utopia makes it seem as though the British pioneered Switzerland. Then again, since a more lofty script would have to question why Rudi or anybody else should dedicate themselves to climbing mountains, perhaps it's better that the show remain a superior adventure film.

MacArthur's adoptive mother Helen Hayes and the book's author James Ramsey Ullman appear briefly as tourist hikers; Roman Polanski's future Count Von Krolock, Ferdy Mayne (The Fearless Vampire Killers, expected soon) is one of the town mountain guides.

Disney's DVD of Third Man on the Mountain is a good show, no matter what the quality of the presentation. But this DVD doesn't respect Walt Disney's old standard of never releasing anything of less than optimum quality. Even individual distribution prints were carefully checked for flaws.

The widescreen (at a minimum 1:66) feature has been mastered from what looks like an old flat video transfer that may be slightly Pan-scanned. The left and right sides sometimes seem tight. That would be forgiveable if the print itself looked better. It's soft and dirty with bland colors, the kind of transfer we remember on VHS tapes from the 1980s. The show is an excellent family film of the kind that cautious parents always say they're looking for, so by all means, don't skip this one; just don't expect it to come up to anybody's idea of an acceptable Disney standard.

There are also no extras. Disney put so much care and thought into the entertainments he personally supervised, that it's a shame that the modern Disney organization has so little respect for his legacy.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Third Man on the Mountain rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Fair but poor when you consider this is a Disney release
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 26, 2004


1. Older mountaineering films frequently feature 'cursed' peaks challenged by daring climbers, but the stakes usually involve less noble ideological underpinnings. The Fanck-Riefenstahl German classics reeked of poetic visual odes to Aryan purity, and even the interesting The White Tower makes the icy heights a battleground between Democracy and unconquered Fascism. To its credit, Third Man sticks pretty much to its subject.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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