Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rudi, I Killed Your Father

Band of Thebes, who introduced me to The Eagle, reminded me this week of Third Man on the Mountain, the 1959 Disney live-action feature about an orphaned Swiss youth (James MacArthur) who, under the patronage of Michael Rennie (sigh), gets a chance to conquer the mountain that killed his mountain-guide father. As with The Eagle, BoT read the film as a coded story of manly love, though I think he's less convincing this time around. (For example, he says that the boy "forgets all about his tomboy girlfriend", which isn't true.) Still, BoT's post brought back memories, so I checked out the DVD from the library to see how it looks fifty years later. (WARNING: There are spoilers below.)

I loved Third Man on the Mountain when I saw it in the theater (I would have been eight years old), and saw it probably more than once on television, since Disney often recycled theatrical releases on their Sunday night television show. James MacArthur was one of my early celebrity crushes, and though I don't remember for sure, I probably identified with Rennie in this bromance, not MacArthur. Or with both of them, come to think of it. They meet cute when Rudi (MacArthur) rescues Captain Winter (Rennie) from a crevasse into which the latter has carelessly fallen: I'd have identified with the rescued -- both here and in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Rennie plays a rather passive character who must be saved, and gladly would I have saved him -- and the rescuer, especially when MacArthur took his shirt off. It turns out that James MacArthur played major roles in a number of Disney films from this period, all of which I saw. Yes, my parents took me and my brothers to see them, but some interested me more than others, usually because of the young male leads. I kept track of some male stars even at that age, and MacArthur was one of them.

As for the tomboy girlfriend, she represents the Disney obsession with heterosexualizing stories that weren't heterosexual before the machine went to work on them. According to several reviews I've looked at, Lizbeth was not a character in Banner in the Sky, the James Ramsey Ullman juvenile novel the movie was based on. But as played by the baby-butch Janet Munro, she's not intrusive at all, as women stuck in male love stories usually are -- she even encourages Rudi's interaction with Captain Winter -- and she is a tomboy, as interested in climbing mountains as Rudi is. (The director of the film recalled: "She had a great sense of balance and being able to look out for herself and fall well. She was one who would do anything. It was basically a matter of me deciding what I would risk her on. She was a wonderful girl to work with.") That may be why she doesn't drop out of sight as soon as Captain Winter arrives on the scene.

The most notable thing about Third Man on the Mountain is that it was shot on location in Switzerland, and the principals got some intensive training in climbing so that they could do much of their own stuntwork. Local guides doubled for them in long shots, and there's occasional matte work because in real life, the mountains were often obscured by clouds, but the reality of the setting is palpable. I didn't know that when I saw it as a kid, but I'm sure it added to the vividness of the experience. I went through a brief fascination with the idea of learning to climb mountains, though growing up in the cornfields of Indiana offered no opportunities for that activity, and I never followed it up.

Which brings me to an amusing user review of the film at IMDB, titled "Hollywood Could Learn from the Past." (No permalink that I can find.) The writer says he first saw the film at the age of 8, just like me, but he did follow up the desire it inspired to take up mountain climbing. Fair enough, but then he goes off an a typical hate-filled-old-geezer rant:
In an age where Hollywood gratifies violence, profanity, and promiscuity, caring parents would do well to, not only let their children see this great adventure story; but to sit with them and watch it as a family. As a teenager, I never once attended a 'house-party', drank, or engaged in the trash that often creates arrogant, ungrateful, and belligerent adolescents. The memory of this film never left my mind, and kept me focused in life. Honour, self discipline, respect for our elders and caring about what others think of us; as well as a great story of personal determination and effort, young people today need to be presented with the values that used to be 'normal' in society.

The real locations used in the filming provide a welcome relief from the slick, computer-animations and green-screen fakery of modern celluloid, and the climbing depictions are far, far superior to anything that has since been passed off by Hollywood, as 'mountaineering'. Having to EARN respect, working and striving for goals, personal sacrifice, and a good story: parents owe this film to their children.
Of course, the location shooting in TMotM was unusual in its day, as the writer was vaguely aware, though the special effects to simulate mountain scenery and the like were analog and optical instead of digital as they commonly (though not universally) are now. He also is evidently unaware that MacArthur had played troubled juvenile delinquents before he went to work for Disney. I'm a decade older than the reviewer, and though I grew up on "family" movies like TMotM I went to a "house-party" or two and later drank, smoked the marijuana, and turned out to be a (gasp) homosexual and an atheist. None of which means that I don't think that respect, working and striving for goals, personal sacrifice (when it's appropriate), or good stories aren't good things.

But best of all, TMotM is short on "honour, self discipline, respect for our elders and caring about what others think of us" -- Rudi defies his elders, including his mother and uncle, who want him to give up his dream of conquering the Citadel in favor of managing a hotel. He refuses to concentrate on his respectable job as a dishwasher, and keeps running off in the middle of his shift to roam and daydream. He doesn't think that much about what "others" think of him: he wants the respect of those who've earned his respect but has little for the rest. And despite his disrespect and disobedience, he climbs the Citadel with Captain Winter (though he doesn't actually reach the summit) and returns to his village in triumph for a big Code-approved dry smooch from Lisbeth. The writer of the review is entitled to his personal values, but he shouldn't pretend that they're embodied in a film that doesn't in fact share them.