Promoted as an in-depth study of the art of mountain climbing, this episode of Walt Disney Presents is actually an extended advertisement for the upcoming Disney theatrical feature Third Man on the Mountain. Although the stars of that film (including James MacArthur and Michael Rennie), the real hero of the proceedings is French mountain climber Gaston Rebufatt, who functioned as Third Man on the Mountain's guide and second-unit director while the company was on location in Switzerland. The highlight finds Rebufatt instructing a novice on the intricacies of scaling a particular precipitious precipice.
Third Man on the Mountain took three months to shoot. And in Walt’s introduction, he stated, “We were only going to make the film if we could film it in its actual locale.”
Perilous Assignment originally aired on November 6th, 1959 on the TV series Walt Disney Presents. After Walt’s introduction, we were introduced to Gaston Rebuffat, a French mountain guide. In those days it was very uncommon for an outsider to become an official guide of the Alps. That speaks to how talented he was. He would go on to serve as Mountain’s guide and second-unit director. Assignment was promoted as an in-depth study of the art of mountain climbing, but some felt it was more of an hour-long commercial for the soon-to-be-released Mountain. I felt it was a little bit of both. Sure they threw in some behind the scenes footage of the filming of the movie, but there were also a few pretty detailed lessons on how to properly scale a mountain. In fact I will have to steal the tag line from Mountain’s promotional poster and say the climbing footage was BREATHTAKING. Some of the maneuvers Rebuffat performed were simply amazing, as he was accompanied by his much less-skilled yet determined companion, Maurice.
Highlights from Perilous Assignment:
- As the Unimogs climbed towards the Matterhorn, some narrow passages had to be widened by tearing down fences that flanked the road. The only reason most residents tolerated it was because they were promised the fences would be completely restored after filming.
- The production set up base camp where the Unimogs could go no further, the base of the Matterhorn.
- Film crews, who were not trained in climbing, had to traverse barely traversable terrain while carrying heavy boxes of equipment (although they did add that they never would have been able to transfer all of the equipment from the base camp to the shooting location without the help of mules).
- James MacArthur was personally "chauffered" to base camp via helicopter by Hermman Geiger, one of Switzerland's most famous rescue pilots.
- Even though they received helicopter rides to base camp, the stars of the film were hardly prima donnas. Stars MacArthur and Michael Rennie also helped carry equipment.