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Monday, November 12, 2007

Top of the World, Part 1 (originally published 12/00)

A young magician named David Blaine recently enthralled New York City passersby with his stunt of standing for 62 hours straight inside a huge block of ice. It was a simple stunt, but guaranteed to attract attention. Audiences, it seems, have always been fascinated by feats of endurance.

Moviemakers are well aware of this. It is one of the reasons why mountain climbing has long been a favorite subject for action films. The ascent of the planet's highest mountains is, after all, one of the most extreme tests of human endurance. Aside from the physical strength required, it is necessary for climbers to confront frigid temperatures, slippery footing, the imminent threat of avalanches, and the illnesses associated with the lack of oxygen at such high altitudes. The currently playing "Vertical Limit" is the most recent example of the screen's fascination with mountain climbing, but its ancestry extends all the way back to the silent film era. To see how earlier filmmakers have presented the challenge of scaling the highest peaks, look for these titles on home video.

"The White Hell of Pitz Palu" (1929). The 1920's saw a proliferation of mountain climbing movies in Germany. The main driving force behind this cycle of films was Dr. Arnold Fanck, a geologist who turned to film directing as a way of expressing his love of mountain climbing. His best remembered film, co-directed with G.W. Pabst, was a silent film called "The White Hell of Pitz Palu," set in the Dolomite range. Its female star was a young dancer and gymnast named Leni Riefenstahl. Calling on her athletic training and conditioning, Riefenstahl quickly learned the techniques of climbing so that she could perform all the action scenes herself without resorting to the use of a double.

"The Blue Light" (1932). Having learned the craft of filmmaking from Fanck and Pabst, Riefenstahl went on to direct her own tale of high altitude adventure. It is the story of a lofty mountain that emits a haunting blue light from a crystal cave at its summit. The desire to explore the mysterious light has lured a number of young men to their doom, but only a young woman, played by Riefenstahl, has been able to reach the source of the light. As a result, she is regarded as a witch by some of the townspeople. The truth, however, is that she has discovered a safe passage to the summit that no one else knows about. As it turns out, her instinct to keep this knowledge to herself is well founded. This film so impressed Adolph Hitler that he personally recruited Riefenstahl to make propaganda films for the Third Reich. She agreed, and has spent the rest of her life living down that decision. Although acknowledged as one of world cinema's most talented directors, her political choices essentially ended her filmmaking career before it could begin.

"The White Tower" (1950). This prototypical mountain climbing film gathers together an assortment of characters to mount an assault on a summit that has never been reached, each with his or her own personal reason for wanting to make the attempt. One, a disillusioned writer, is searching for spiritual fulfillment; another, a naturalist, hopes to find hitherto unknown forms of vegetation. A young woman, played by Alida Valli, is obsessed with the idea of conquering the mountain that took the life of her father. This film is no longer being offered for sale on home video, but copies of it can still be found for rent.

"K2" (1991). This film about two very different friends attempting one of the world's most difficult climbs is actually based on a stage play. We can only imagine the difficulty of constructing the play's set (in fact, the play received a Tony Award for scenic design). The film version opens out the play with magnificent location photography while attempting to preserve the human interaction that was the basis of the theatrical production. K2, the mountain that also provides the setting for "Vertical Limit," is the second highest mountain in the world, but is actually regarded as a more challenging climb than the taller Everest.

I hate to leave you dangling, but the rest of the mountain climbing films I wanted to recommend to you will have to wait until next week. Until then, hold on tight to the rope and don't look down.

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