Walt Disney and his family had taken to vacationing in Europe and after a trip to Switzerland, Walt became infatuated with the heritage and culture. This sparked his interest in making a film set there. He finally settled on adapting a book called Banner in the Sky, which was based on a true story.
The movie was mostly filmed on location in Zermatt, Switzerland. Walt hired Ken Annakin to direct, who was used to making Disney films abroad after directing The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and The Sword and the Rose. For his two leads, he turned to two of his most recent young stars. James MacArthur had previously starred in The Light in the Forest and Janet Munro was fresh off the set of Darby O'Gill and the Little People. A professional rock climber was hired to film most of the climbing sequences and the actors had two weeks of climbing training prior to shooting. Mountain filming required the crew to travel by mule, helicopter and in on instance, walk across a trechorous glacier to get some of the shots. A minimal ammount of matte paintings were used in this film, making the cinematography that much more impressive.
The film is centered around Rudi, the son of a famous mountaineer who died trying to climb the Citadel, the tallest mountain in Switzerland. One day while playing hookie from his job as a dishwasher at the town's hotel, he finds Captain Winter stranded and saves him. He is invited on an expedition, which he ruins by getting stranded and making the rest of the team come after him. Rudi spends his summer trying practicing climbing with his boss and his daughter, Lizbeth. Romance begins to bloom between them, but it is disrupted when he finds out that Captain Winter is hired another guide to help him climb the Citadel and Rudi runs after them. During the journey, Rudi finds a passage his father had found but never showed anybody which would make the Citadel climbable. On the way to the top, Rudi stays with a fellow climber who gets injured and forgoes being one of the first to reach the top. As a result, he becomes an even bigger hero than the men who made it and he is acclaimed as a hero, even though he is the third man on the mountain and not the first.
Third Man on the Mountain was released on November 10, 1959. It was a critical success and was highly acclaimed for it's magnificent location shooting, great writing and excellent performances. Unfortunately, it was a box office dud. It failed to find an audience, which was a shame because it was an expensive film to make. It was later edited and shown in parts on the Disneyland TV show, retitled Banner in the Sky, the title of the book it was based on.
It's a shame that Third Man on the Mountain never enjoyed success in later years because it really is a great film. Today it is known by most Disney fans as the inspiration for the Matterhorn attraction at Disneyland, but as a film it is well made and very enjoyable. It's a fairly simple story that is told so well that it's hard not to find yourself cheering for Rudi. That, mixed with the amazing cinematography and wonderful characters, make this one of the most underrated Disney films of all time. Film buffs should look for a cameo by Helen Hays, James MacArthur's mother.
Third Man on the Mountain was released on DVD in 2004. Sadly, it contains no bonus features. What's worse is that no restoration was done, so the print is marked with excess grain and artifacts that shouldn't be there. The film is also presented in fullscreen, which was not the normal theatrical ratio by 1959. While the film may have been theatrically released that way, it is more likely that it was filmed in fullscreen and cropped into widescreen for it's theatrical release. Due to the fact that the framing feels natural and open, I'm guessing that the DVD presents the full filmed ratio.