THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN lays claim to winning family adventure from Disney in 1959. Picturesque, exciting and well-cast: according to its director, Ken Annakin, it was Walt’s favorite live-action feature. And why not?—a solid story with good actors, doing neat stuff in a stunning locale: what’s not to like?
The Swiss Alps. In the shadow of “The Citadel ” young ‘Rudi Matt’ (James MacArthur, 21) bridles at being a dishwasher in a hotel in a community of mountain climbers and guides. Brash but skilled (his father a renowned climber killed on The Citadel), Rudi attaches himself to a visiting mountaineer, the celebrated ‘Capt.John Winter’ (Michael Rennie) who makes it known he wants to scale the peak that no-one has yet conquered. *
The well-crafted script by Eleanore Griffin was based off adventurer James Ramsay Ullman’s 1954 novel “Banner In The Sky”, in turn inspired by the famous 1865 Edward Whymper climb of the Matterhorn. The 14,692-foot Matterhorn doubles for The Citadel, and the production crew spent 20 weeks on location in Zermatt, nestled below the magnificent peak. $2,000,000 was allotted for the actors to train-up for some of the less-dangerous work, for the difficult 2nd-unit filming up on the heights, and for the polishing done in matte shots for the visual effects, arranged by Peter Ellenshaw and Ib Iwerks. William Alwyn composed a fine score, the you-are-there cinematography was the work of Harry Waxman (Swiss Family Robinson, The Wicker Man) and Georges Tairrez.
Ken Annakin had already directed two features in England for Disney, both in 1952; The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men (Richard Todd as Robin) and The Sword And The Rose. Annakin’s next project after ‘Third Man‘ was his last for Walt, and he went out with a smash—Swiss Family Robinson. With help from all the technicians, he did a swell job in Switzerland, and along with the likable MacArthur and stalwart Rennie he was blessed by a cast rounded out by pretty and vivacious newcomer Janet Munro (she’d join MacArthur in Swiss Family Robinson), and seasoned pros James Donald, Laurence Naismith and Herbert Lom.
Disney’s big showcases for the year—Sleeping Beauty, The Shaggy Dog and Darby O’Gill And The Little People (also with Munro)—surpassed it, but it did gross $4,600,000, coming in 56th place. By the time it was playing in theaters, Walt had opened up the Matterhorn Bobsled ride at Disneyland.
Others in the cast include Lee Patterson, Nora Swinburne, Walter Fitzgerald and Ferdy Mayne. MacArthur’s adoptive mother, Helen Hayes, shows up for a bit part, and author Ullman is present as well. 105 minutes.
* Mountaineer and author James Ramsay Ullman (1907-1971) also wrote the peak-scaling dramas High Conquest in 1947, featuring Gilbert Roland, and 1950’s The White Tower, with Glenn Ford. Your humble correspondent credits this movie with a lifelong fascination with the Matterhorn.