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Filming Third Man on the Mountain

By Michael Barrier

The beautiful Alpine town of Zermatt, in southern Switzerland at the foot of the Matterhorn, was one of Walt Disney's favorite European destinations. It was Walt's visits to Zermatt in the 1950s that inspired him to build a miniature Matterhorn at Disneyland. The town was also the site of much of the filming in 1958 of one of his very best live-action features, Third Man on the Mountain (1959); Walt was in Zermatt for part of the filming. My comments about that movie are at this link.

I wrote about Zermatt on this site in 2004, after I returned from a month-long visit to Europe to see places where Walt worked and to interview people who worked with him, as part of the research for my Disney biography, The Animated Man. My Zermatt report was the third of four "European Journal" entries from that trip.

Every once in a while I hear from a European visitor to my site who has discovered the Zermatt page and wants to share information or memories of that wonderful place. Happily, Werner Schrämli of Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, has written to share not just memories but photos that he took when he and his family were on holiday in Zermatt in July 1958 and saw some of the filming of Third Man on the Mountain. Werner writes: "Our family has spent yearly holidays in Zermatt since 1958—we just love it! One of our sons got married in Zermatt in 2011 in the little chapel in Winkelmatten, just ten minutes above the village."

Here are some of Werner's photos, with his captions. To see the scenes being shot here, go to the fifth chapter on the DVD, starting about 41 minutes into the film. If you haven't seen the DVD, or, better yet, bought it, you've missed a real treat.

Zermatt photo b

"My mother, my younger brothers, and me in front of the chalet facades prepared for the shooting."

Zermatt photo c

"The shooting is taking place; 'rain' is being produced over the scene."

Zermatt photo d

"People on the main street, watching the shooting (among them in front left with left hand held to chest, my younger brother Peter)."

Zermatt photo f

"A horse carriage off scene in front of the Hotel Mont Cervin."

Zermatt photo i

"Actor X and producer, screenwriter or ??? I tried to figure out who the persons were but wasn't very successful." That's James MacArthur on the left, but I'm at a loss to identify the other two. The man looks familiar but is definitely not Ken Annakin, Third Man's director. [An April 6, 2013, update: Michael Kirby has pointed out that the actor on the left is not James MacArthur, but Lee Patterson, who plays Klaus Wesselhoft, MacArthur's rival for Janet Munro’s affections, in the movie. Michael also suggests that the man on the right could be James Ramsey Ullman, author of Banner in the Sky, the novel on which Third Man on the Mountain was based, and I'm sure he's right. Not only does the man in the photo look like Ullman, but Ullman has a bit part in the movie (I haven't yet spotted him in scanning the DVD), and so he had good reason to be in Zermatt during the filming. The woman could be his wife, or possibly the screenwriter, Eleanore Griffin, but that's only a guess. Ullman's papers wound up at the Firestone Library at his alma mater, Princeton University, but the online finding aid reveals no trace of Third Man or Walt Disney.]

Werner remembered a dramatic episode during the filming, an episode that unfortunately did not have a happy ending:

Two horses got overly excited during the many takes for a certain scene. The horses panicked and pulled the carriage through the village towards a bridge over the river. They failed to follow the road due to the high speed (the driver fell off the carriage somewhere on the way). The horses then fell in the river and could not be saved.

My two younger brothers and I were very close to the river playing a game of mini-golf. We witnessed the horrible scene when the horses rushed down the river, just their heads showing with their eyes wide open in greatest despair ! At that moment they were still alive, but their legs were probably already badly injured. The place being at the lower end of Zermatt, there were no more bridges over the river, so there was absolutely no help possible for the poor creatures ! We were horrified and are still sad about it.

A February 26, 2014, update: Werner writes: "I finally managed to buy the DVD of the movie in German via the internet, not a very good copy, but still. When the feast of the village people with the dancing sequence takes place, different places were nicely mixed: The shooting was made from two very different angles. One had the hotel as background (probably the Monte Rosa), the other—would you believe it—the little chapel of Winkelmatten! Very nice indeed. The photo shows the chapel in summer, probably 1958, with my mother and youngest brother next to the-not-too-well-fed horse and carriage."Winkelmatten

[Posted February 26, 2013; updated April 6, 2013, and February 26, 2014]

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