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Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The White Tower (1950)

Director: Ted Tetzlaff
Stars: Glenn Ford, Valli, Claude Rains and Oscar Homolka
The White Tower isn't a fairy tale castle or the home of a fiendish wizard, it's the colloquial name for a mountain in the Swiss Alps called Kandermatt, one that has never been climbed before and one which Carla Alten really wants another shot at. She's played by Alida Valli during that five film section of her long and distinguished career in which she went merely by Valli, a period of English language movies that included The Paradine Case, and The Third Man. In that company, this is certainly one of of the other three but it's still a worthy movie. Her character here is a local girl who has had a go at the White Tower more than once before, but feels driven to try again. Surely at least part of it must be because her father Alessandro had died in the attempt last time out, and he a legend in the business too, but each of the party of six that she assembles has their own reasons for being part of the expedition.

For some the reason is her. The guide is a local peasant called Andreas, played by Oskar Homolka, who is her friend; and top billed Glenn Ford is Martin Ordway, an American bomber pilot who was shot down in the vicinity during the war. He joins in only because he's beginning to fall for her, being rather lackadaisical about the whole thing otherwise. A couple are older men who seem steeped in the poetry of mountain climbing, a couple played by names as important as Claude Rains and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Hardwicke plays Dr Nicholas Radcliffe, an English scientist who lives in a cabin that overlooks the mountain, and Rains is a French writer called Paul DeLambre who is stuck most of the way through a book on the mountain. Finally, there's Herr Hein, the only real dedicated mountain climber of the bunch, in the young and arrogant form of Lloyd Bridges. What his motivation is isn't immediately apparent.

There's a little to and fro on the ground as Alten puts her party together. Andreas doesn't want to go but does so anyway for no apparent reason other than everyone knew he would except him. Hein is the obvious candidate for the group, as he has more experience, skill and vigour than anyone else around, but for some reason Carla doesn't want him, probably because he's a German and the war wasn't that long ago. DeLambre is deeply honoured to even be invited. Radcliffe knows he'll never make it but wants to give it a damn good go first. Ordway really can't be bothered but finds himself tagging along anyway, the last of the six to join. We whip through these sections pretty quickly though because the point of this movie is to be on the mountain and anything preceding that almost doesn't matter.
There's character development here, but all of it is tied to the mountain. DeLambre just wants to finish his book. Alten wants to beat the mountain that beat her father, and while that doesn't quite trump logic it comes close on occasion. Hein wants to conquer it in his arrogant Aryan way, harping on about superstitious peasants and the inherent inferiority of the others. Lloyd Bridges certainly has the blue eyes to carry it. Ordway finds his reason in reaction to Hein, taking offence at what he sees as a demonstration of everything he's fought against during the war. He wants the success to come to the team not to one man's proof of strength and will and predestination. Of course the mountain is the strongest character of all, a character that will live on long after all these climbers are dust.

This philosophical approach is a strong one but perhaps it speaks so closely to the truth of climbing that you have to really experience what they're getting at to be able to grok it. The story was sourced from a novel by mountaineer James Ramsey Ullman, who frequently wrote about climbing and whose stories were often filmed. Only one predates this, Irving Allen's adaptation of High Conquest in 1947. The genre was hardly new though, the first being an American film made in 1903 about the ascent of Mont Blanc, but it was pioneered by the Germans in the silent era, making such films into a genre, something that some critics regard as a quintessentially European form of cinema in the same way that the western is a quintessentially American form of cinema. It's understandable given that people in some Alpine communities are almost born on skis just like some southwest Americans were almost born on horseback.
Arnold Fanck was the godfather of the genre known as bergfilme, which began with documentaries like The Wonders of Skiing and The White Art and developed into fictional pictures like Peak of Fate, The Holy Mountain and The White Hell of Pitz Palu. Some of these starred Leni Riefenstahl, whose work producing, directing and starring in 1932's The Blue Light, entirely shot high up in the Alps, is what brought her to the attention of that short dark Austrian with a sense of destiny, Herr Hitler, who promptly hired her to make his most prominent propaganda movies, which changed the face of cinema and introduced many new techniques that succeeding generations have built upon ever since. Perhaps the connections to Triumph of the Will and Olympia are why bergfilme has become primarily an old genre.

The White Tower was one of the first bergfilme, or mountain movies, made by Hollywood, along with other Ullman stories like High Conquest and Third Man on the Mountain. I can't say which mountain they're really climbing here or whether it's really called the White Tower, but it's actually in the French Alps and it's a pretty impressive little chunk of rock. Some of it looks like sets but some of it is obviously real and whichever is which, it all looks very powerful. Surprisingly the camera doesn't set up startling shots of beauty, looking down at the ground from way up in the air, instead settling on surreptitious glimpses at peaks beyond or what might lie beneath.

I like this approach, never having climbed a real mountain in my life but having done plenty of hillwalking and parkway driving and it's those moments of discovery that are the real thrill to me. I'm used to working through a stretch that may or may not be beautiful or noteworthy only to turn a corner or catch a gap in a hillside and see something that takes your breath away. That's the magic and I have a feeling that's what the filmmakers were looking for. To a degree they captured it but I'm sure more could have been done to blow our minds high up in the mountains. Perhaps the shots with actual actors weren't so far up after all.

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