Monday, February 1, 2021

Third Man on the Mountain

James MacArthur as Rudi.
I'm hoping that Disney+ will eventually provide an outlet for some of the studio's lesser-known live action films, such as The Sword and the Rose, The Fighting Prince of Donegal, and Third Man on the the Mountain. The subject of this review, Third Man on the Mountain (1959), chronicles the fictitious exploits of young Rudi Matt, whose father died while trying to reach the peak of a Swiss mountain known as The Citadel in the mid-1800s.

Rudi (James MacArthur) daydreams of scaling the treacherous rocks while working as a dishwasher. In his spare time, he seizes every opportunity to climb the smaller mountains surrounding his village. One day, he hears a distress call and rescues Captain John Winter--a famous mountain climber--who has become trapped in a crevasse. Winter wants to find an experienced guide to help him scale The Citadel. Rudi realizes this may be an opportunity to realize his dream, but first he must convince others that he's worthy of the climb.

Michael Rennie as Captain Winter.
Walt Disney, who enjoyed skiing vacations in Switzerland, acquired the screen rights to James Ramsey Ullman's 1955 novel Banner in the Sky. A winner of the prestigious Newbery Honor, Banner in the Sky was inspired by Edward Whymper's first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865.

The film adaptation was shot in 1958 in the Swiss village of Zermatt, with the Matterhorn standing in for the fictitious mountain The Citadel. Allegedly, it was during his visits to the set that Disney came up with the idea for the famous Matterhorn attraction at his Disneyland theme park.

In the lead role of Rudi, Walt Disney casts James MacArthur, the adopted son of actress Helen Hayes and author Charles MacArthur (The Front Page). MacArthur had previously starred in Disney's The Light in the Forest (1958) and would go on to appear in classics such as Swiss Family Robinson and Kidnapped (both 1960).

Janet Munro as Lizbeth.
A likable, enthusiastic actor, MacArthur lacked the screen presence to carry a film on his own. Thus, Disney surrounded him with a bevy of talented performers, such as: James Donald (Quatermass and the Pit); Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Laurence Naismith (Greyfriars Bobby); and Herbert Lom (A Shot in the Dark). For Rudi's chaste love interest, Disney cast the talented Janet Munro, who had signed a five-picture deal with the studio (though she'd only complete four films). She and MacArthur would team up again in Swiss Family Robinson.

Third Man on the Mountain is shock full of thrilling mountain climbing sequences and jaw-dropping scenery. In fact, there's almost too much footage of Rudi and company scaling up the rocky walls and rappelling down them. The movie could have trimmed 15 minutes easily and told the story just as effectively. Still, the mountaineers obviously fascinated Walt, who devoted an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney to a behind-the-scenes look of the on-location shooting (which doubled as great "free" advertising, too).

While it doesn't rank with the top tier of Disney's live action adventures (e.g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson), Third Man on the Mountain is a worthy juvenile tale of a young man achieving his dream. However, I am curious to find out whether mountain climbers back then actually wore the coats and ties depicted in the movie. I would have thought they'd opt for warmer clothing. So, if you're reading this and you're a mountain climber, please let me know in the comment section below!


  1. Viewers should keep their eyes peeled for a cameo appearance by James's mom Helen Hayes with his wife at the time, Joyce Bulifant.

  2. From an earlier era, the British did wear that sort of clothing, at least lower on the mountain. Click on this link and you can see George Mallory and company, pretty tough looking bunch.

    1. Mallory was wearing similar clothing when climbers found his body below Everest's summit.

  3. My family and I were just watching Third Man on the Mountain last night! It's always been a favorite...and another film that I think is underrated ( at least among Disney's output ). James MacArthur is excellent and Laurence Naismith gives a really good performance as old Theo. It's good to see Helen Hayes make a cameo, too.

    The Disney studios were pretty good at researching facts and those indeed were the clothing that climbers wore in those days. You can see it in etchings in old Strand magazine issues. More surprisingly, women climbed mountains wearing skirts and bonnets and no safety equipment at all! This link shows some 1800s photos of climbers in Scotland: