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Making a Movie Out of a Mountain : Climbers Give High Marks to ‘Cliffhanger’s’ Realistic High-Altitude Action Sequences

TIMES STAFF WRITER, Bill Stall, who covers California politics for The Times, has climbed since the 1960s

For more than a year, American rock climbers and mountaineers have looked forward to the release of the Sylvester Stallone film “Cliffhanger” with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.

Anticipation was fueled by climbing-world gossip that the producers of “Cliffhanger” had hired some of the world’s best climbers as crew members and consultants and were spending considerable time and money to make the film authentic.

The apprehension concerned Stallone’s Rambo image and the possibility that gratuitous violence and outlandish stunts--needed to make the film a commercial success--would overwhelm any realistic depiction of what climbers do, and why.

Curiosity about the film within the relatively close-knit climbing world was also fired by a long-simmering controversy over the origin of the “Cliffhanger” story, involving two well-known climbers who also are writers, John Long and Jeff Long--no relation (they apparently don’t even speak to each other anymore).

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Stories of the film’s genesis even involve a real-world climbing fatality and the crash of an airplane with a fortune in illicit cargo into the winter fastness of the California mountain wilderness.

Now that the movie is out (it took in $20.4 million in the four-day holiday weekend), the climbing world’s anticipation and apprehension both have been fulfilled. The initial reaction of climbers to “Cliffhanger” is that many of the mountain scenes are impressively real even though the context of the climbing action--a wild battle with international money thieves--is absurd.

Those who actually climb vertical rock faces for fun were impressed with the technical realism and the spectacular mountain scenery of the Dolomites, an Alpine range in northern Italy.

“I liked it,” said R. J. Secor of Pasadena, the author of a hiking and climbing guidebook to California’s Sierra and a member of the American Alpine Club, the oldest mountaineering organization in the country. He saw the film at a special screening that included groups of climbers. “The action really moved. You couldn’t tell when it was Stallone climbing or the doubles. I liked that. All the climbers I was with liked it.”

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Ted Vaill, a Malibu lawyer and longtime Alpine Club official who has made a small-scale expedition film of his own, said “Cliffhanger” raised Hollywood depiction of climbing to a new technical level, beyond such films as “The Eiger Sanction” with Clint Eastwood in 1975 and Fred Zinnemann’s film “Five Days One Summer” with Sean Connery in 1982 (a hit with climbers, but not at the box office).

“Nobody can beat ‘Cliffhanger’ for the spectacular special effects,” Vaill said.

Some quibbled with details, but mostly the sorts of things that would only offend climbers.

For example, Vaill said he would never climb in a blizzard in just a T-shirt, as Stallone’s character Gabe Walker does in one scene. Secor was appalled when a buckle on one character’s climbing harness bent and broke, creating one of the first of the movie’s tension-filled developments. “When that harness broke, I thought, ‘This is another world,’ ” Secor said.

The early “Cliffhanger” climbing, before the characters are caught up in the chase for $100 million that falls from the villains’ airplane, involves the sort of moves over rock that world-class climbers actually make. The major difference is that most climbers would never attempt such things several thousand feet off the ground without being safeguarded by a roped partner to check themselves in case of a fall.

Movie crew members who were climbers were impressed with Stallone’s efforts to learn techniques and to do the climbing himself up to the point where the doubles had to take over. Stallone actually did hang suspended from his left hand gripping a ledge that overhung thin air. What was not evident was an eighth of an inch-diameter cable that protected him in case he slipped.

One character’s fall from Stallone’s hand early in the film was “real,” too. Actress Michelle Joyner hung over the void, backed up only by a wire running from her climbing harness up and out through her sleeve.

Then, Georgia Phipps, Joyner’s climbing double, actually plunged 400 feet before being caught by a cable. Computers spliced the Joyner and Phipps scenes together digitally.

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The principal climbing doubles were American Ron Kauk, 35, who set standards for very difficult climbing in Yosemite Valley in the 1970s, and Wolfgang Gullich, a national hero in Germany who pioneered some of the world’s most extreme ascents before he died in an auto accident last August at the age of 31.

The climbing-unit camera operator was David Breashears, an American Alpine Club member from Newton, Mass., who is well-known among U.S. mountaineers for both his climbing and filming of mountaineering expeditions. The lead rigger was Jim Bridwell, a legendary Yosemite Valley climber and professional guide.

The story takes place in Colorado, but director Renny Harlin rejected the Rockies as too old and rounded--and too inaccessible--for dramatic filming. Harlin and 20 to 30 climbing aides spent several months preparing the jagged Dolomite faces for filming and plotting every camera shot in advance.

Dolomite shooting lasted from March through June at elevations of up to 13,000 feet. On the peaks, crew members and actors were tied in to climbing harnesses at all times for safety.

“Under normal conditions, you hang the cameraman over the edge and you tried to get a shot and that’s pretty much how it was done,” Harlin said. “We had to put more excitement into it. We had to take technology onto the mountain.”

Reality was enhanced by using very wide angle lenses and running cameras up and down a 60-foot elevator built onto the mountain wall. Storms frequently drove actors and crew from the mountains. But by the end, Harlin, a native of Finland who had been at ease on the sea but not the peaks, said, “What a great life it was in the mountains. I would go back anytime.”

The battle over story origination is long, complicated and fractious. Jeff Long argued that the genesis was his novel “Angels of Light,” based on the 1977 crash of a plane carrying marijuana and cocaine into frozen Merced Lake in the high country of Yosemite National Park, and the scramble to recover the goods.

But co-producer Gene Hines said he conceived “Cliffhanger” with screenwriter and climber John Long after seeing a television film of Yosemite climbing in 1985 and getting to know climbers in the California park.

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He argued that Jeff Long had no exclusive rights to the drug-plane tale since John Long had been in Yosemite at the time and was totally familiar with the event, which reportedly led to temporary riches when the impoverished climbers recovered the drugs.

The script finally emerged after traveling a tortuous trail fraught with legal threats and monetary settlements to Hines and others by Carolco, the “Cliffhanger” production company, to avert costly lawsuits. The credits say the film is “based on a premise” by John Long and ranks Hines as one of three co-producers, not as a creator.


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