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Podcast 0047: Climb the Matterhorn with the Third Man on the Mountain

Third Man On The Mountain Original Movie Poster
Third Man On The Mountain Original Movie Poster

This month on Dispodopolis, we reach back into the Disney archives and review the movie "Third Man on the Mountain." I didn't know this movie existed a couple of years ago and was super excited to see the film that inspired one of my favorite rides at Disneyland. In a word, Disney described the film "Third Man on the Mountain" as "Breathtaking." In a sentence, you can explain this movie as a boy attempting to realize his father's dream of climbing an alpine peak known as the Citadel or, as we have learned to call it, the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland
The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland

This movie was the inspiration for the Matterhorn bobsleds. Walt visited the set while filming "Third Man on the Mountain" and was inspired to include this majestic mountain peak in his park. The shape of the Matterhorn gives it a unique characteristic that makes it easily recognizable. He sent a postcard to Vic Greene, his architect, with a short, pithy message, "Vic, Build This. Walt." The idea would soon grow to include the influence of a bobsled experience. The Matterhorn Bobsleds opened at Disneyland on June 14, 1959, four months before the movie debuted. It was the first steel rollercoaster.

The movie is based on "Banner in the Sky," written by James Ramsey Ullman. Ullman was a mountain climber and wanted to take his experiences, lessons, and stories taught to him and write a book to entice kids to get out and discover their nearest mountain peak. The book was released in 1954, and it represents Switzerland ninety years before the book was released. It is a fictional book describing the golden age of alpinism, which transpired between 1854 and 1865. The book dances around the actual events in Switzerland but presents them from the eyes of a sixteen-year-old, Rudi, from the town to help children relate to the protagonist's struggles. But also help them see that they can follow their dreams if they work hard and prove themselves. To me, it seems to capture the spirit of stories like Johnny Tremain, also a fictional character that finds themself caught up in a changing world during the American Revolution. Johnny Tremain was also making bad choices but turned his situation around to redeem himself by joining the troops to fight off the British.

The screenwriter who adapted the book was Eleanor Griffin; she was very prolific in Hollywood during the 1930s and won an academy award for the screenplay of "Boys Town," starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. These two stars dominated the screen during that decade. "Third Man on the Mountain" was the only movie Griffin worked on for the Disney Studios. The director was Ken Annakin, and he was a friend and mentor to George Lucas. Lucas denies the association of Annakin Skywalker and Ken Annakin, but it is hard to believe. Annakin was known for "The Longest Day" and "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines." He was an intricate part of the Disney Studios during the evolution of their live-action genre.

The musical score was created by William Alwyn, who had worked in Hollywood for three decades. You won't hear his music in line for the Matterhorn attraction at Disneyland, but you will listen to a familiar polka or two that was pulled from the movie. We don't usually mention the cinematographer, but Harry Waxman used the landscape to tell the story in this movie. He also worked on Walt Disney's "Swiss Family Robinson," as did many others on the crew of "Third Man on the Mountain."

Janet Munro as Lizbeth and James McArthur as Rudi Matt
Janet Munro as Lizbeth and James McArthur as Rudi Matt

The cast of the movie is developed around two young and up-and-coming stars and they were supported by many veterans of Hollywood. James McArthur plays are sixteen-year-old leading man and protagonist, Rudi Matt. He has to go against his family to take up the profession he feels he is being called to join. He wants to become a mountain climbing guide like his father. His father died before he was born during a trek that was tragically ended by an avalanche. Josef Matt, his father, sacrificed his life to save that of his guest. James McArthur made four movies for Disney, including "Kidnapped" and "Swiss Family Robinson." He is best remembered for his role as Danny Williams on "Hawaii Five-0." The line, "Book 'em Danno," most recognized from that show was addressed to James McArthur's character, Detective Steve McGarrett.

Janet Munro is our leading lady and the love interest of Rudi Matt. In this relationship, she is the aggressor because Rudi doesn't see anything but his mountain and his crippling lack of self-esteem. Much of that stems from his inability to do what he loves and is instead a dishwasher. Her character, Lizbeth, is the daughter of the proprietor of the local inn, Monte D'Oro. She stands behind Rudi, is his greatest cheerleader, and gets Teo to play along to encourage Rudi's behavior. "Bottle the wind" is the phrase she uses to explain how they can't get Rudi to change his passion, just like you can't bottle the wind. Munro has an engaging personality that pulls you in and gets you excited about this film. Disney also released her other feature, "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," the same year and kept her on to work with James McArthur on "Swiss Family Robinson."

The supporting characters of this film help the drama play out, and each takes their side on Rudi's future. Laurence Naismith plays Teo Zurbriggen, the surrogate grandfather figure and expert mountain climber who takes Rudi under his wing at the inn's kitchen. You can also see Naismith in Disney's "The Three Lives of Thomasina." James Donald plays Franz Lerner, who is Rudi's Uncle and Guardian. Uncle Franz is determined to keep Rudi off the mountain. He understands the true hardships of the job and doesn't want Rudi to die on the mountain that took his father. Donald is known for two notable World War II inspirational films, "Bridge over the River Kwai" and "The Great Escape." Michael Rennie plays Captain Winter, an English mountain climber that is independently wealthy and pushes Franz into letting Rudi become a guide. He shows the community that Rudi is an asset to this small town. Rudi saves Captain Winter's life in one of the opening scenes. Rennie is known for "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Les Miserables."

Two other characters that fill in the rest of the cast are Frau Matt and Emile Saxon. Frau Matt is Rudi's mother and is played by Nora Swinburne. Frau is the German word for Mrs., and you hear this term for her, and you often hear Herr, which translates to Mr., before the men's names. Frau Matt is the reluctant mother that forbids Rudi from climbing the mountain and becoming a guide. She can't stand to lose him as she lost his father. Swinburne worked in Hollywood for five decades and is known for big historical pieces like "Helen of Troy" and "Christopher Columbus." Herbert Lom plays Emile Saxon. Emile Saxon is a rival guide from a nearby village that questions the validity of the guides from Rudi's town. He is headstrong and thinks of himself first, leading Rudi to learn the lesson that his father held close to his heart. Always put yourself second when you are guiding a group. Lom is known for the Pink Panther movies of the 60s and 70s, along with "Spartacus."

Rudi walking through the town of Kurtel

Third Man on the Mountain uses melodrama to push the story forward and oversimplifies the characters to reach and entice a younger audience. The redeeming factor of this movie is the incredible landscape and cinematography that captures this region so beautifully. The depth of the sky and beautiful glaciers that seem to glow immediately draw you into their world. The pristine intensity of this Alpine ridge is really beyond words. You can feel the crisp air cut through the clear azure sky. The natural beauty was highlighted by Peter Ellenshaw's paintings that accompanied many scenes of this movie. Peter Ellenshaw was Disney's go-to background painter for the studio's live-action film genre in the 1950s and 1960s. Most famously, he was the matte painter for "Mary Poppins" and all the beautiful paintings of London. He was brought in to intensify the heightened danger of a scene without risking the actors or stunt performers. There were quite a few harrowing moments to behold.

There are plenty of scenes that capture the actual climbing ability of the guides that still inhabit the region. They used guides from nearby Zermatt in Switzerland and Chamonix in France. In the opening credits, both of these cities are recognized for their contributions. These two cities are four hours from each other, and each sits on the side of the great Matterhorn. The Swiss Alps are considered the original peaks that inspired men to take up professional mountain climbing. Here is where they turned mountain climbing into an art form, and the passion spread throughout the globe and still draws those to their peak today. You can still climb the Matterhorn from the town of Zermatt. It isn't cheap and will run you $7000. You need to complete a Matterhorn prep program or be graded at a 5.7. If you want to know more, check out the website Mountain Madness. The additional training you will need to complete that rating will cost you a supplementary $2000. It is a sport for those with deep pockets, or this is a significant priority in your life.

Now we return to our discussion of the movie and an explanation of why I watched it twice. Third Man on the Mountain is an easy movie to watch with simplistic power plays and cliche relationships. The whole idea is to show you a simpler time, but not an easier time to traverse. There is heartache, death, and humiliation. Each character in this movie believes their actions are justified and sensible. We see this as the film opens up, and we experience Rudi Matt staking his claim as he reaches the peak of the Citadel and flies his father's redshirt. The camera pans back, and we realize that Rudi is daydreaming from the kitchen of the Monte D'Oro while he is washing dishes. Well, he is breaking more dishes than he is cleaning. Rudi sneaks off as the chef and family friend Teo is scolding him. The dynamics of his life start to unfold as he roams through the town, passing familiar stops and uncovers his ax, boots, and rope that he has hidden in a tree. The tree sits opposite a cross that marks the remembrance of his father's death. His father died while trying to reach the top of the Citadel but fell prey to bad weather and an avalanche. Since that fateful tragedy, no one has attempted to traverse the Citadel.

The movie seems to pull you back in time to the mid-19th century and the recent development of international travel. People were coming into money and wanted to experience more than just their twenty-mile radius. Wealthy American entrepreneurs and their families started to board steamboat liners and cross the Atlantic Ocean. This added to the current visitors of European Aristocrats that had already made these Alps one of their top destinations. Many Americans were more affluent than their counterparts in Europe and were taken advantage of in the Old World. The city of Kurtel is a fictional city created to represent a town from this era with a deep tradition of tourism created by its proximity to the Matterhorn. We quickly learn that a few towns in that area compete for the right to climb the peaks that surround this region. Each town has its experts and guides to welcome those that wish to conquer their local summits. These are proud cities with honor that run deep to a fault.

The Citadel at the Matterhorn

We rejoin Rudi as he climbs higher and higher into the Alps. As he reaches his peak and confronts those larger ones surrounding him, he hears someone in trouble. Rudi jumps down and crosses the glacier that sits between the pinnacles. The snow is packed tight with huge crevices that lacerate the ice bringing out a luster of turquoise that pierces through the ancient ice. Rudi rescues a hiker that has misstepped into one of these apertures and finds out he has rescued a well-known trekker Captain Winter. From this point forward, Captain Winter becomes his ally to become a guide. He defends Rudi's plans and presents a path to his Uncle and Mother.

When Rudi returns to the city, we can witness the development of the rivalry for the attention of Lizbeth. There is another youth after the heart of Lizbeth. Klaus often hints at his interest in her, but she ignores his advances and only has eyes for Rudi. Rudi can't see past his self-esteem issues to realize her attraction to him. It is unwavering, and you have no doubt how this relationship will play out. She takes him at face value and loves his steadfast and pure love for the mountains. Throughout the movie, she encourages his enthusiasm and helps push those in his path that will help him grow inexperience. She touts his new friendship with Captain Winter so the whole town can learn of their relationship. Even after he loses his Uncle Franz's blessing, she buys the shoes that were gifted to Rudi by Captain Winter, from his Uncle Franz to make sure Rudi can keep them.

Teo, Lizbeth, and Rudi spend the day climbing in the Alpine mountains.
Teo, Lizbeth, and Rudi spend the day climbing in the Alpine mountains.

Rudi loses Uncle Franz's blessing while he is on a hike with his Uncle and Captain Winter. Captain Winter convinces Uncle Franz to bring Rudi along on their hike as a porter. Captain Winter and Rudi have same goal of concurring the Citadel, the highest peak on the Matterhorn. Rudi is beyond ecstatic and pushes the boundary when he tries to show off to Uncle and the Captain. Rudi missteps when he takes off on his own, and Uncle Franz has to risk his life and the Captains so Rudi can be rescued. Rudi returns to town in shame, and Uncle Franz sends him back to the hotel to his current job as a dishwasher. Uncle Franz is intentionally trying to dash Rudi's hopes of becoming a guide. It works for the interim until Teo takes the day off to rebuild Rudi's self-esteem.

Rudi climbing the Matterhorn and getting in trouble

With Rudi's self-esteem rebuilt, he tries to convince Uncle Franz to give him one more chance as a porter, but Uncle Franz refuses. This terminates his hopes, and he is humiliated in front of the whole town. He begins to sulk and isolate himself from Lizbeth and the town by refusing to attend the village's celebration and dance. This upsets Lizbeth, and she agrees to dance with Rudi's rival, Klaus, to knock some sense into Rudi. At the dance, Rudi overhears the men talking about how they saw smoke coming from the hut that resides along the Citadel's base. No one has used the cabin since Rudi's dad died. Rudi knows that Captain Winter has found someone in a neighboring town to be his guide, and Rudi leaves to join them. He wants to complete his father's life goal of reaching the top of the Citadel. Rudi is the only one in Kurtel that believes it is possible and that his father found a way before he died.

Emile Saxon at the cabin before climbing the Citadel

When Rudi reaches the cabin, he lies to Captain Winter that his mother and Uncle Franz permitted him to climb to the hut. Captain Winter knows this but uses Rudi being there to his advantage. He wants Rudi to convince his uncle to join them. Rudi's goal is to find the route his father found so they can climb past the fortress of the Citadel and make it to the top. We are also introduced to our final character, Emile Saxon. Emile is from a rival town and doesn't want Rudi joining them. He also doesn't like the fact that Captain Winter wants Rudi's uncle to join them too. The guides from these towns are proud and want to bring glory to their village and exclude the other villages. There is a lot to be gained in credibility and financially by being the first to the peak.

After Uncle Franz figured out Rudi had climbed up to the mountain and Teo had uttered the title of the movie, "Third Man on the Mountain," the men of Kurtel headed up the mountain to bring Rudi home and discourage the other men from continuing on this path. The men of Kurtel reach the hut and confront Captain Winter and Emile Saxon about Rudi and climbing the Citadel. Rudi intervenes and claims he has a way past the fortress on the Citadel, and they can make it to the top. After a lot of arguing and prideful talk, they agree that Captain Winter, Uncle Franz, Emile Saxon, and Rudi would continue on the journey up to the top of the Citadel.

The Chimney that leads past the Fortress to reach the top of the Citadel
The Chimney that leads past the Fortress to reach the top of the Citadel

Captain Winter had injured his head on a recent climb, and Emile thinks he is unstable to climb to the top. When they make camp have way up the Citadel, Emile decides that they should leave him behind and take the glory of making it to the top. Uncle Franz and Rudi disagree, but Emile Saxon takes off early the following day, and Rudi follows him from a distance. Emile is tripped up when he hears Rudi, and Rudi follows after him to save his life. Emile, at one point, gives up, but Rudi perseveres and gets him back to the camp. Captain Winter and Uncle Franz head out after them in the morning, find Rudi's back and take it with them as they climb to the top. Captain Winter and Uncle Franz reach the pinnacle and reach inside Rudi's pack to place his father's ax and redshirt at the top of the mountain. Rudi's dream from the opening scene would come to fruition even if he weren't the one placing his father's treasured items at the peak.

We then see the hero scene of the movie. All four men head down the mountain rejoining Emile Saxon and Rudi at the previous night's camp. They enter the town to a triumphant celebration. Captain Winter and Uncle Franz praise Rudi for his tireless efforts and their inability to reach the top if it weren't for him. Rudi opened up the possibility to reach the pinnacle of the Citadel and cemented his future as a guide. Rudi receives a kiss from Lizbeth, and since it is a public kiss, they will need to get married one day. All is well as another Disney film comes to a perfect ending.

Before discussing the movie "Third Man on the Mountain," we ask ourselves what mountain we would like to climb in the Disney parks. That's right. We want to climb a mountain. Ever since Ryan and I watched members of the Sierra Club traverse the Matterhorn at Disneyland, we have had a craving for a mountain climbing adventure in the park. We, of course, would love to climb the Matterhorn, but there are so many more mountains to climb in the parks. Which mountain would you like to climb? Please send us an email at

Please enjoy our latest podcast, Dispodopolis. We would love to hear from you and your family. If you have any comments, questions, or fun and fancy-free thoughts, email us at

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