Don’t ask – it’s a long story – but I’ve been doing some research on an area of the Swiss Alps. Mountain climbing country. One of the peaks near a community called Grindelwald is called the Eiger, once considered an impossible mountain to summit from its North Face. It was conquered in the early part of the 20th Century.
Clint Eastwood starred and directed a 1975 James Bond-like sendup called The Eiger Sanction, which – coincidentally – aired on the Encore network Saturday.
When the film premiered, Eastwood was interviewed by film critic Roger Ebert, who reported that the director performed many of his own climbing stunts. A particularly elaborate shot that involved his character’s training for the Eiger climb had Eastwood dangling way, way, waaaaaay up the side of a sheer cliff. The scene involved a long shot that slowly zoomed in on the face of the spire, eventually revealing the climber against the magnificent backdrop of the rock, drawing closer and closer until Eastwood filled the frame.
He said he did the stunt to make the zoom-shot – an unbroken piece of filming with no cut-aways to swap an actor and stuntman – as realistic as possible, and to demonstrate it was Eastwood dangling along the face.
To gather the audience reaction, Eastwood slipped into an opening-night theater, entering from the back and seating himself just as the sequence began. The training climb was an amazing spire called the Totem Pole in Monument Valley, Arizona, a needle of geography that has been off-limits since the movie’s filming. The effect is a stunning mixture of danger and cinematic realism, and it brought an immediate reaction from the woman seated just ahead of Eastwood.
As he told Roger Ebert, the woman spoke to her friend in amazement, “Gee, I wonder how they did that….” to which the friend replied, “Special effects.”
It wasn’t, though.
Eastwood received harsh criticism during the filming for tackling the Eiger, a peak that is considered treacherous even by experienced climber’s standards. During the shoot, 27-year old David Knowles, a British climber and film double fell to his death, and a number of others suffered falls and resulting injuries. Eastwood himself had nurtured a boyhood fantasy of completing a climb on a difficult peak such as the Eiger.
Eiger is a German word that means “ogre,” and the beast of the Alps was unkind to Clint Eastwood. Critics panned the movie and it was considered a box office failure, despite the exotic Swiss scenery and the spectacular Swiss panorama.
The mountain is clearly visible in many of the film’s backdrops, areas that I recognized clearly from my own visit to the Eiger.
Unlike Clint Eastwood, I opted for the easy route. I easily managed the 13,000 foot summit from the North Face, a task made infinitely easier with satellite and ground camera imagery on Google Earth.