A remote anecdote from World War II is given the bigscreen treatment in “The Ascent,” a handsomely produced but dramatically routine indie about an Italian POW in 1942 British East Africa who challenges his English captor in a climb of Mount Kenya. Once upon a time, this passable but instantly forgettable wartime actioner would have been reasonable double-bill fodder. These days, however, the theatrical marketplace has no room for this sort of mid-range fare, spelling a video/cable/TV fate. Italy reps the one market where it could do well theatrically.
The film’s main attraction, the unique setting and scenery, is instantly apparent. A low-maintenance prisoner-of-war camp, commanded by Brits but staffed by African subjects, sits on a dusty plain in the shadow of imposing Mount Kenya. Said to be one of the most difficult mountains in the world to scale, peak gives the camp’s chief officer, Maj. David Farrell (Ben Cross), something to occupy his time beyond his Italian and German prisoners and a lovely local widow, Patricia (Rachel Ward).
At the outset, however, the rigid, dour Farrell, who’s lost his wife and child in the war, is an underachiever, having failed to conquer either Mount Kenya or Patricia. Leave it to a dark and handsome Italian, Franco Distassi (Vincent Spano), to take up the slack, even if he has to escape from the camp to do so.
The Italians hatch a plan for Franco and Enzo (Tony Lo Bianco) to climb the mountain, plant the Italian flag at the summit and return to camp. Franco can’t abide thelast part of the scheme, but when Enzo is forced to drop out, the younger man pushes on alone, with Farrell in hot, and jealous, pursuit.
Based on a true incident, David Wiltse’s screenplay is straightforward and devoid of ironies or complexity. With a host of potential sources of tension to draw upon, from the mixture of English, Italians, Germans and Africans confined to tight quarters, script mostly trades in stock national characterizations — the uptight Englishman, condescending Nazi, hotblooded Latin, and so on.
Climactic couple of reels depicting the two men’s chase up the mountain are scenically diverting, but even the Rockyesque ending seems rather perfunctory and less than rousing, except perhaps to Italian patriots. Problem with the story is that there is virtually nothing at stake, giving the viewer little reason to invest much emotional interest in the characters.
Canadian helmer Donald Shebib has mounted the proceedings in presentable fashion and the performances are agreeable enough, but it’s the unbeatable locations that provide the greatest diversion here.