By Jason Ivey
Considering the 1975 action/adventure film was panned by critics and lost money at the box office, it’s no surprise “The Eiger Sanction” isn’t counted among the best and brightest of Clint Eastwood’s directorial oeuvre. It certainly doesn’t come close to packing the emotional punch of his later works like “Unforgiven”, “Million Dollar Baby”, or “Grand Torino”; but taken on its own, the movie possesses some inimitable pleasures, guilty and otherwise.
This is a mountain climbing adventure, and while the steps to get to that mountain may be hokey, clichéd, or even sloppy, it’s still a fun trip and worth the ride. This film could not and would not be made today for a multitude of reasons, and there are moments within that will arouse a yearning for that pre-political-correctness, pre-CGI world of film making.
In addition to helming the project with a script based on the book by the American author Trevanian, Eastwood stars as Dr. Jonathan Hemlock, an art professor, mountaineer, and former government assassin. (The character names are not quite as over-the-top or clever as those in the Bond movies, but the joke is on nonetheless.) Eastwood plays the character with a world-weary cynicism dripping with sarcasm, but in a way only he can, lending a helping of humor and credibility to the preposterousness of the plot.
The story falls into the well-worn “one last job” category, as Hemlock is pulled back into the world of government-sponsored assassination by a sickly albino head of some clandestine government enterprise, who threatens to expose his vast art collection to the IRS should he not accept the “sanction”, as sponsored assassinations are euphemistically referred to.
The target is a man about who little is known, except he’ll be participating in a climb of the Eiger and has a telltale limp, which off course makes Hemlock the indispensable choice of hit man. Obviously the whole point of this silly exercise is to get everyone up on the mountain, but getting there is worth the wait.
Eastwood’s failure to bow to political correctness is evidenced in some of his public statements and runs rampant in “Gran Torino”. Clearly he relishes the joking and the joshing — the racial jokes, gay jokes — back in a day when people could laugh at each other and themselves without fear of getting dragged into court.
In today’s world, the humor in “The Eiger Sanction” would arouse the ire of the NAACP, NOW, Anti-Defamation League, LGBT community, and any other assortment of political correctness enforcers. A black character named Jemima Brown, played by the late and beautiful Vonetta McGee, is the movie’s double agent and possible femme fatale. When she first meets Hemlock on a plane disguised as a stewardess (they were still called that back then) and introduces herself as “Jemima”, Hemlock responds that he’s “Uncle Ben”. Jemima: “I’m serious, that’s really my name. My mother was hooked on being ethnic”. Hemlock: “Or else turned on by a pancake. As long as we both agree that it’s too much for a black chick to have the name of Jemima.” Jack Cassidy plays the obviously gay Miles Mellough who keeps a small dog named “Faggot”, and of whom it’s said by George Kennedy’s character Ben Bowman: “He looks like he could change a nine dollar bill in threes.” There’s something refreshing – and laugh-out-loud funny – in one-liners from a period when sensibilities weren’t so . . . sensitive.
What make this film truly remarkable are the mountain climbing stunt sequences. Upon taking this project on, Eastwood took a three-day climbing course in Yosemite National Park, then continued to practice on his own for several months. What you see in the film is really Eastwood, doing his own stunts and own climbing. No green screen work, no CGI. What you see on the screen is all real, all in camera. The actors, the camera operators, and the crew are really up there on that mountain, which actually exists in Grindenwald, Switzerland.
There are also some fantastic sequences shot in Monument Valley (John Ford’s favorite location) earlier in the story. In what is perhaps the most memorable shot of the entire film, we find Eastwood arriving atop the Totem Pole, a very thin formation reaching several hundred feet high, to a waiting George Kennedy, who sits perilously close to the edge. The shot begins at medium length, which left me wondering if the scene was shot in a studio against a panoramic backdrop. But a short time later, all within the same shot, the camera pulls back wider and wider, becoming clear this is a helicopter shot and Eastwood and Kennedy are really atop the Totem Pole.
Apparently Kennedy and his mountain climbing props were dropped off by the helicopter, while Eastwood himself actually climbed. In reality, the Totem Pole is sacred to the Navajo tribe, and it was contractually agreed upon that permission would be granted to film in exchange for removing the pitons that had accumulated on the Pole over the years. This marked the last time anyone was allowed to climb the Totem Pole, making Eastwood the last person to scale it.
The later sequences on the Eiger are truly breathtaking. Real stunt work in real locations carries an impact and excitement impossible to replicate with CGI. In today’s movie world, anything is possible – if you can dream it, you can create the images and put them on screen. Despite the sophistication and realness achieved with computer-generated images, we still know what we’re looking at is fake — there’s an emotional sterility in the knowledge that what we’re seeing came out of a box, despite the brilliant work by the artists and animators.
The mid-70s marked a time of daring and sophistication in film stunt work, before “Star Wars” came along and forever changed the world of effects. There’s simply something more suspenseful, more dramatic, when you know you’re watching Clint Eastwood hanging from a rope 1,000 feet above the rocky earth. This is not even a stunt double. This is the real actor. The camera team actually lugged the gear and set up these amazing shots on the side of the mountain.
For all the intensity and excitement of such images and sequences, there’s a dark side. On the second day of shooting on Eiger, a climbing guide and double working on the film named David Knowles was killed by a boulder in the same spot Eastwood had been in only moments before.
Eastwood considered shutting down the film in the wake of the accident, but decided to carry on, claiming he didn’t want Knowles’ death to be in vain. Director of photography Frank Stanley worked on several of Eastwood’s previous films, but Eiger would be his last after he fell on the mountain and was forced to use a wheelchair for some time. He reportedly blamed Eastwood for the accident, portraying the director as reckless and impatient. There were reports of other accidents and incidents kept under wraps by the producers.
Despite the risks and accidents (and no film is worth the loss of life), the images created on screen by Eastwood, his stunt, mountaineering, and camera teams, and the landscapes themselves are incredible. They elevate an otherwise silly plot, marking a moment in movie history when the images committed to film were far more real than today’s mix of live action and cartoons. This realness makes films like this compelling in a way today’s films can never be.
For all of their loud bluster and fast-action cutting, they lack the plodding suspense of difficult and daring in-camera effects of a film like “The Eiger Sanction”. This film’s action is bold, its dialogue unapologetically funny, its characters over-the-top, and its plot full of holes. But it reflects a period when a movie could be all of these things, and still be an entertaining spectacle.