No, this is not an article about ‘getting out there and up there and putting yourself in challenging situations rather than letting the world pass you by’. This month, we’re taking a backseat (on the couch) and talking Climbing Movies.
You might think I’m about to list in detail some of the most excellent climbing documentaries which have been hitting our big and small screens in the last few years – most notably Sherpa (2015), Meru (2015), The Dawn Wall (2017), Free Solo (2018) and 14 Peaks (2021).
Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely check them out. But that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re hitting up some of my favourite Good (and Bad) Climbing Movies. When I said this to my husband he replied: “There are no bad climbing movies”. Boom, hit the nail on the head. Because even though some of these are bad… they’re great! So here are my top three Climbing Movies (plus a few favourite extra scenes!) – a genre which has entertained and thrilled us all from the comfort of a couch or popcorn-covered, syrup-stained cinema chair over the last few decades!
THE GOOD: BASED ON A TRUE STORY
It’s always more exciting when a movie covers real events right? Except when you remember real people die on mountains. This first film is primarily more a ‘mountaineering’ than ‘climbing’ film but there’s definitely enough techniques and gear used for Everest (2015) to fall easily into the category of a Climbing Movie so don’t @me simply because there isn’t a traditional focus on ‘big wall’ climbing.
My introduction to what happened to the groups climbing Mount Everest in May 1996 was from Jon Krakauer’s book ‘Into Thin Air’ (which I highly recommend). So when the film came out I raced to see it and cried and cried along with Keira Knightly and her bad 90s ‘do. I want to note the tragedy of that season (8 climbers died), but temper that with the reality and dangers of climbing one of the Seven Summits which were depicted so fantastically in this film. I cared about the characters, the roles they all had to play on the mountain (from Base Camp, to the summit and all the way back home) as well as the discussion around ‘why’ they want to climb. This question is asked of so many people I know who climb, especially big wall and outdoors. The answer is usually honest with (or dances around but acknowledges) the fact that: there are so many problems on the ground, so much to worry about and deal with, but on the wall (or the mountain) you feel lighter and freer. In fewer words: you feel less depressed. Jon Krakauer canned the film (there were a few moments where he was depicted in an unflattering light and I expect he has survivors guilt) but both the book and film are well worth delving into.
Check out the trailer here: https://youtu.be/79Q2rrQlPW4
THE BAD: GUILTY PLEASURES
Ask any of my friends and family about my film preference and they will confirm that I like a lot of terrible films. To give an example, some movies I freaking love include Deep Blue Sea, Speed 2, Waterworld and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. Now you have an idea of my cinematic background, let’s dive into a couple of pretty bad but still very entertaining Climbing Movies.
One thing that makes Climbing Movies ‘bad’ is the lack of realism in the techniques, the rock face and the gear used. This one ticks all these boxes – and then some: Cliffhanger (1993).
There is so much going on in this film; most notably barehanded ice-climbing, which is not a thing – for anyone – ever.
There are so many scenes where our hero, Sylvester Stallone, is climbing in one style, using the gear for another, or straight up doings things the most difficult way possible. Why? Because it’s flashy. But you know what? I love flashy, and these films don’t always have to be a fountain of truth. Clambering around in the snow in a t-shirt and backwards cap, perfectly good equipment inexplicably failing and booby-trapped rope bridges are all a part of the fun in this action-packed unrealistic mash up of outdoor adventure scene tropes.
Check out this classic Cliffhanger scene here - including bomb explosion! https://youtu.be/Mr_ML0Cvp9A
Ok y’all, my all time favourite Bad Climbing Movie: Vertical Limit (2000). This started it all for me. An early naughties killer cast led by Bill Paxton, Robyn Tunney and Chris O’Donnell with incredibly over-the-top (occasionally) poorly acted dramatic moments, is the first movie of the genre I remember seeing and I’ve gone back time and again to watch and rewatch!
Check out the ridiculous opening sequence here: https://youtu.be/m5GeMIlQSn0
The dramatic/horrific opening sequence here has been crowned by Alex Honnold as ‘the worst scene in all of Hollywood climbing’ and, yes, if the gear took the initial fall, you’re probably all going to be ok – everyone just stop panicking right?!
This film continues on with great scenery, questionable gear-use and drama on the mountain – just the thing for two siblings to find each other again *heart*.
It’s exciting, funny, stupid and pretty – check it out.
THE UNNECESSARY: SOLO SCENES
Some movies are not Climbing Movies. But they gosh-darn manage to squeeze a climbing scene into them anyway.
Long ago, before the words ‘El Cap’ and ‘Free Solo’ became synonymous with Alex Honnold, there was Captain James T. Kirk from the Starship USS Enterprise in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989).
Spock: (Kirk clinging precariously to El Capitan) “I do not believe you realise the gravity of your situation.”
Kirk: (Almost slips; a rock drops) “Gravity was foremost on my mind.”
Check out the scene here: https://youtu.be/qL1WqN1XKK0
This scene has nothing to do with the plot, we learn nothing about the characters except some quippy dialogue hinting at their respectful professional brotherhood. However, there are shots of perfect methodical climbing methods and it was filmed on location in breathtaking Yosemite (with William Shatner’s stunt double, Bob Gaines.) This is juxtaposed with cheesey falling effects, the rocket boots and the 80s climbing gear appearing in a futuristic sci-fi film. All of this make it a fun albeit unnecessary climbing opener.
As far as opening sequences go in the Mission Impossible franchise, Mission Impossible 2 (2000) has my absolute favourite. You get the strong feeling the conversation went like this:
Tom: “I just got really into climbing. Let’s put that in the movie.”
John Woo: “But Tom, it doesn’t fit anywhere in the script.”
Tom: “That’s cool, just use it for the opening sequence, that way it doesn’t have to fit in logically.”
And honestly, I believe big wall free soloing is exactly what Ethan Hunt would do for relaxation on the weekend. So kudos for wedging this in there as an exciting opener with believable character moments! In terms of the actual climbing, the knee bar rest, sweet-as heel hooks, the (completely unnecessary) horizontal dino, and a reverse iron cross to finish it off: BELLISSIMO!
You can watch the full opening sequence here: https://youtu.be/K0KzvD-0rx0
Not all of us are into our own stunts like Tom Cruise or are too-cool-for-school like William Shatner. Some of us resonate with a little less known and oft-forgotten climbing scene: Anna in Frozen (2013). For anyone who somehow missed this piece of animated mastery: Anna is in the mountains searching for her snow-queen Sister. She comes up against a wall of ice (sick-as ice climbing scene coming right up, I’m sure!) She attacks the wall in her no-grip leather knee-high boots and dress (with oversize woollen mittens on). She scrambles, she struggles, she makes some headway before calling back to her co-adventurer:
“Please tell me I’m almost there? Does the air seem a bit thin to you up here?“
Pan back and she has made it less than a metre off the ground. She is my spirit-Disney character.
This cute little climb can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/p4Py3pM_60o
Pop the corn, sit back, relax and vicariously climb on!
Cinema go-er, oft mocked for movie choice, critic of incorrect gear/rope use on screen