Review: ‘Fire on the Mountain’

For anyone remotely interested in the subject matter, "Fire on the Mountain," a look at the United States' unique World War II mountain warfare infantry division, will be a thrilling documentary. With tremendous vintage footage, this well-made docu is both entertaining and moving in the manner of the best war stories.

For anyone remotely interested in the subject matter, “Fire on the Mountain,” a look at the United States’ unique World War II mountain warfare infantry division, will be a thrilling documentary. With tremendous vintage footage of the earliest days of American skiing and of European combat helping to tell the inspirational story of an impressive group of men, this well-made docu is both entertaining and moving in the manner of the best war stories. Specialized theatrical dates are a possibility if groomed to reach the target audience of sports and outdoors enthusiasts as well as older viewers, and it’s a natural for public TV and cable.

Made by Telluride-based filmmakers Beth and George Gage, pic benefits from being two great stories in one. The first carries the 10th Mountain Division from its creation by Charles Dole, founder of the National Ski Patrol, through the recruitment of an elite group of champion skiers, mountain climbers and European refugees, their arduous training for three years in Colorado and their eventual combat role in dislodging the Nazis from the Italian mountains in 1944- 45, highlighted by their spectacular night climb of Riva Ridge.

Second, shorter section details the imposing legacy of the members of the 10 th. During training, they invented, out of necessity, such now-standard items as the snowmobile, Snow Cat, nylon climbing ropes and mummy sleeping bags. After the war, they went on to form the basis for America’s nascent ski, sports and environmental industries, with various members having founded or run Aspen, Vail , Snowmass, Nike, the Sierra Club, Outward Bound and the Mountain Hut and Trail System, as well as dozens of other ski areas and schools.

The early footage, in excellent condition, shows skiing as it used to be, and anyone familiar with the sport will get a huge kick out of the pioneers on view being dragged up slopes in wooden boxes or arduously climbing up mountains in the days before chairlifts or even rope tows.

There is also vivid coverage of Camp Hale in the Rockies, where 14,000 soldiers eventually trained under fearsome but highly collegial conditions. When the war seemed to be drawing to a close, they began to despair of ever seeing action, but wound up getting more than enough — nearly a thousand were killed and four times more injured. The account of the nocturnal sneak ascent on Riva Ridge, which resulted in the sleeping Germans’ being surprised in their foxholes , is a stunner, making one wonder whythe story has never been told in a feature film.

The division members, those interviewed as well as spoken about, emerge as a uniformly impressive lot, men with a capital M, good at what they did but deeply thoughtful, philosophical and, at times, emotional about what they went through and the friends they left behind. The entrepreneurial talent many of them displayed subsequently is shown to have sprung directly out of their love of sport and nature, not at all from mercenary motives.

Docu brings the story, and many of the men, full circle by ending with a 50th anniversary re-climb of Riva Ridge, in which Yanks and Germans reunite on a peaceful basis; the world outlooks and physical condition of these men provide a great deal to admire.

Orientation of the film plays directly, and convincingly, to the widely held belief that the United States reached its zenith at the end of World War II. If this is true, the members of the 10th, as presented here, were part of the reason.

Fire on the Mountain

Production

A Gage & Gage production. (International sales: Paul Kohner Inc., Beverly Hills.) Produced, directed by Beth Gage, George Gage. Written by Beth Gage.

Crew

Camera (color), Kenneth Lehn; editors, Scott Conrad, Krysia Carter-Giez; music, Todd Barton. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 26, 1996. Running time: 72 MIN.

With

Narrator: Steven Kanaly.
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