“Tell me, Mr. Bowman, in your opinion do these men climb to prove their manhood, or is it more a matter of compensating for inferiority feelings?”
The Eiger Sanction is a less of a movie than it is a time capsule. Everything about it is totally anachronistic by modern standards, from the outdated gear and climbing techniques to the kitchy plot and casual racism. Despite all this, it’s surprisingly fun and unexpectedly compelling. In the troubled landscape of climbing blockbusters, The Eiger Sanction stands tall and proud like a desert sandstone tower.
I’ll explain the plot briefly, as it’s not important. Dr Jonathon Hemlock (Clint Eastwood), an ex-assassin turned art teacher (sure, why not…) is coerced into the classic “one last job” trope, a so-called “sanction” to take out a fellow assassin and mountaineer who just so happens to be involved in an expedition on the Eiger Nordwand. Climbing ensues.
Based on a 1972 novel by the same name, the 1975 release of The Eiger Sanction received mixed reviews. It has largely faded into obscurity and is almost unheard of these days. Both directed by and starring Eastwood, it could hardly be called his magnum opus (Dirty Harry pun intended). When pitted against the remainder of Eastwood’s stellar resume, both in front of and behind the lens, The Eiger Sanction was never destined for greatness.
Yep, this movie has problems. The plot is thinner than 5.11 slab. The dialogue is naff as fuck. Political incorrectness is rife, with regular jibes at race, gender and sexual orientation. If this movie were made in 2016, Tumblr servers would meltdown in mere seconds.
But the climbing!
In his review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote, “It has a plot so unlikely and confused that we can’t believe it for much more than 15 seconds at a time, but its action sequences are so absorbing and its mountaintop photography so compelling that we don’t care … and so we get wrapped up in the situations, and we’re seduced by the photography, and we enjoy the several pretty girls who happen along in the hero’s path, and if the plot doesn’t make any sense well, no movie’s perfect.”
If you can forgive the obvious flaws of the movie (and I can), it is chock full of radness. The cinematography of the climbing sequences has rarely, if ever, been equalled in a fictional climbing film. From the Zion Badlands, to Monument Valley, to the Eiger itself, the beautiful scenery lends a sense of realism to an otherwise completely unrealistic film.
And there’s good reason for this. With the help of veteran Dirtbag Eric Bjornstad, Eastwood trained as a climber and performed all the climbing and stunt scenes himself. This included real, honest-to-goodness climbing on the Eiger, The Cave Route in Zion, and an epic tyrolean traverse and ascent of the Totem Pole in Monument Valley. No CGI, no stunt doubles… Just Clint Eastwood doing what he does best – being a badass.
Therein lies the main reason that this film would never be made today. Forget the racial undertones (a recurrent theme in recent Eastwood movies such as Gran Torino and Invictus), the insurance companies would NEVER let an actor perform these stunts in the current risk-averse climate.
What you end up with is actually pretty special. Rather than the effects driven nonsense of Vertical Limit or Cliffhanger, you’re gifted with genuine climbing scenes containing genuine risk and genuine gravitas. Sure, there are a few technical inconsistencies, such as top ropes being where they shouldn’t or ice axes facing the wrong way, but even modern blockbusters have these foibles. What’s impressive about The Eiger Sanction is this earnest faithfulness to climbing culture, even if it’s perception of climbing culture is a little skewed.
So… the last word? So bad, it’s good. It’s awesome, actually. I rate it highly.
4 stars out of 5