Third Man on the Mountain (1959)

Film Title: Third Man on the Mountainthirdman

Year: 1959

Studio: Walt Disney Productions

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Drama


  • Michael Rennie
  • James MacArthur
  • Janet Munro
  • James Donald


Ever wonder why there’s a Matterhorn at Disneyland? As director Ken Annakin recalled, “At this time Walt had taken a shine to Switzerland and everything Swiss. He used to go there on his summer holidays, and adored it . . .”.Disney acquired the rights to mountaineer/author James Ramsey Ullman’s novel Banner in the Sky, and this story he felt would be the thing for all young people. No effort was spared to make it as entertaining as the holiday Walt was taking in Switzerland. While on location in Zermatt Switzerland, located at the northern base of the Matterhorn, for Third Man on the Mountain in 1958, Disney conceived the idea for a Matterhorn at Disneyland, which had opened three years previously. For the film the mountain is rechristened The Citadel, but the story is loosely based on the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. The Matterhorn Bobsleds ride opened at Disneyland June 14, 1959, and Third Man on the Mountain premiered November 10, 1959.

Young Rudi Matt (James MacArthur) is working as a dishwasher at the best inn in town. His boss is Teo (Laurence Naismith), a retired mountain guide, and popping in frequently is lovely Lizbeth (Janet Munro) the inn owner’s daughter and Rudi’s girlfriend. Rudi’s father Josef Matt was the area’s leading guide, but he died while saving the life of his client in an attempt to scale The Citadel sixteen years earlier. Rudi dreams of following in his late father’s footsteps and wants very much to be the first to conquer the mountain on which his father’s death occurred. Naturally Josef Matt’s widow and Rudi’s mother Frau Matt (Nora Swinburne) are adamantly opposed to Rudi’s mountain climbing ambitions. She has obtained a position for him at the inn. Next year he will go away to school and after that return to a secure and prosperous position as an innkeeper and maybe eventually the proprietor! She is supported in this by her brother, Franz Lerner (James Donald), who wishes to protect his sister.

But it seems that Rudi’s dreams of becoming a mountain guide cannot be squelched. He takes off afternoons and does some climbing on his own. One afternoon on one of these jaunts he encounters Captain John Winter (Michael Rennie) who unfortunately has fallen down a crevasse in the ice while walking along gazing up at The Citadel. Rudi saves his life and Winter is so taken with the boy’s abilities that he convinces Rudi’s uncle to allow Rudi to serve as his porter on a reconnoitering expedition the next day. Rudi sets out with Winter and Uncle Fritz and is eager to prove himself. But Rudi is a bit too eager and goes off on his own during a break in the ascent to explore a new route. Of course, he puts himself in a position such that he must be rescued by his uncle and returns to town in disgrace. Winter leaves the next day to try and locate a guide to accompany him on a planned assent to conquer The Citadel. No one in Rudi’s town is willing, and no one has been on the mountain in the sixteen years since Josef Matt’s death on its slopes. One evening sometime later, smoke is seen coming from the long abandoned climbing hut on The Citadel. Rudi is sure that Winter is making an attempt to scale the mountain and steals away in the night to join him. He’s right. Rudi encounters Winter at the hut along with a guide from a rival village, Emil Saxo (Herbert Lom). He convinces Winter that he has his uncle and mother’s permission to be there. The next day the villagers, looking through a telescope spot one, two, three figures ascending The Citadel. Uncle Franz puts two and two together and figures out that his nephew is the third man on the mountain. It is also discovered that Saxo is Winter’s guide, and after a stern dressing down by Teo, Uncle Franz and some of the other town guides are shamed into ascending at least as far as the hut, ostensively to bring Rudi back to his mother, but really to rescue the village’s pride. But in Winter and Saxo’s absence, as they descend back to Saxo’s village for more provisions, Rudi discovers the secret passageway, key to a successful ascent, his father was seeking-and as Rudi believes found, just before he died!

Third Man on the Mountain may be the best Disney live-action feature that you’ve never seen. Eleanore Griffin’s tight script, adapted from Ullman’s novel, keeps the action going at a brisk pace while, most importantly, letting us get to know the characters so that we have a vested interest in the outcome of their actions. Director Annakin and cinematographers Harry Waxman and Georges Tairraz offer truly spectacular vistas of the Alps, the Matterhorn particularly, and Annakin stages the dramatic action well and guides his actors to effective performances. The cast is uniformly first rate, with Disney employing many great British character actors to good effect. Michael Rennie, tall, gaunt, and aristocratic-looking is a believable Winter. Laurence Naismith, James Donald, and Herbert Lom lend able support. The youngsters, James MacArthur and Janet Munro, who would team again with Annakin for Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson the following year, offer unaffected and enjoyable performances. Annakin would go on to direct the Cinerama spectacular Battle of the Bulge in 1965 and three years later another kind of cinema spectacular, Raquel Welch in The Biggest Bundle of Them All. MacArthur’s mother, actress Helen Hayes, can also be seen in an unbilled cameo as a tourist in the village.

But the real star of the picture is the realism that Disney demanded and spared no expense to achieve. Knowing that his actors would never be able to perform the climbing necessary to make the action believable, he was lucky enough to find Gaston Rebuffat, one of the great Alpine climbers of the day. Rebuffat was also a very good photographer. So once Disney and Annakin staged the action sequence on storyboards at the Disney studio in Burbank, Rebuffat restaged them with doubles on actual mountains near his home in Chamonix in southeastern France. Annakin remembered, “I was then able to match, not in the studio, but on real rock faces, much of the action that [Rebuffat] had done with doubles, but of course in this picture it was impossible to tackle it all unless the actors became climbers too, unless they knew how to react as climbers, and be in some position where one really did have falls below them. So I got the cast together and for two weeks they each had a guide allocated to them and learned to climb”.But a little Hollywood magic was also called for. The depth of fall in many cases was obscured by clouds, shadows, intervening ledges, etc. in the actual footage. Master matte painter Peter Ellenshaw was called in to create paintings that could show the depth of fall convincingly and more clearly than the live film footage. Annakin and his Disney crew assembled all of this footage together seamlessly. There is a genuine feeling of great height in the film. And this realism just couldn’t be recreated in a studio.

The film was mostly well-received by critics of the day. Variety reported: “It has the sort of altitude thrills to send the viewer cowering deep in his seat and the sort of moving drama to put him on the edge of it.” Time magazine prophesized: “[it] may well become a children’s classic of the screen, a sort of, Tom Sawyer of the Alps”. But the film was a financial disappointment for the Disney company as audiences failed to respond to the film. It was later re-titled Banner in the Sky and shown in two parts on the Disney ABC television network series.

On Video

Third Man on the Mountain was released to DVD in 2004. Unfortunately the Disney organization is very hit or miss in their transfer of their live action titles to DVD. The sound has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1, but it’s really just a broadening of the original monaural sound. The picture is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and that appears to be correct, there is no evidence of compromised compositions. But the picture is just not what one would expect from Disney. There is dirt evident, and some of the images are just not presented as clearly as they should be. Some of the reel change cues are seen which leads me to believe that this transfer was originally mastered for the film’s VHS or laser disc release. It’s really too bad. But all that said – the film is certainly watchable. I’d rather have it available this way than not at all. But somebody at Disney should be ashamed of his or her disrespect of the company’s legacy.


If you’ve never seen this film, or haven’t seen it for a long time, it is really a terrific film, as good as or better than the same kind of films coming out of other studios at the time. Disney was willing to spend the time and expense to get things right, and it shows in every frame of the film. Rent it or purchase it (it is one of Disney’s cheaper DVD releases). This film, while not probably a bona fide classic, is still incredibly enjoyable. If you have kids and are looking for “family entertainment”, what are you waiting for? But the film stands on its own outside of the “family entertainment” category. This is one of the overlooked gems in the Disney vaults.

The Ken Annakin quotes and excerpts from contemporary reviews of Third Man on the Mountain were taken from Leonard Maltin’s invaluable book: The Disney Films (1973, Crown Publishers, Inc.).

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