I first saw The White Tower (1950) a couple years ago on Turner Classic Movies as part of a marathon of films about mountain climbing (God bless TCM and their wonderfully random-subject marathons!). This movie has so much working in its favor that it‘s just hard not to like it. Beautiful location, great mountain climbing scenes that are almost seamlessly blended with the sets and actors, a terrific cast all of whom give great performances and a plot that has a surprising amount of depth to it.

Valli and Ford in The White Tower

The cast of characters assemble at a lodge in the Swiss Alps just after the war. Valli has returned to climb the mountain of the films title, the White Tower. Just before the war, Valli and her father assembled a team to climb the mountain with disastrous results, leaving most of her team dead and her father missing. Cedric Hardwicke is a family friend who tries to council Valli about her obsession with the mountain. Hardwicke volunteers to go with her on the climb but after her and her fathers previous tragic attempt, no professional climber will climb with her. Also at the lodge is Claude Rains. Rains is a depressed, written out alcoholic trying to finish a book about the White Tower, a mountain he has always wanted to climb. Rains has a young wife who messes with his head and mocks his reputation as a great writer and former mountain climber.


Do I really have to put a caption for Claude Rains?  The Master!

Lloyd Bridges is a German with a devout Nietzschean philosophy. He wants to prove the “superman theory” by reaching the top of the white tower alone. But he’s not just a one dimensional villain. He’s helpful and nice and even saves the lives of several people but looks at the weaknesses of others with mild amusement. Finally, there’s Glenn Ford. Ford was a pilot who was shot down near the small mountain village during the war and fell in love with it’s beauty. He’s returned to enjoy some post war peace and quiet.

Bridges, Valli and Ford climb The White Tower

Ford is attracted to Valli immediately and she to him. But her obsession takes precedence and, unable to form a professional team of climbers, asks those at the lodge. Ford is immediately disinterested. His good nature and easy going demeanor masks his shattered beliefs in himself, his country and his fellow man. Rains jumps at the chance. He sees it as a way to overcome his lack of self worth and prove to himself that he was great once upon a time. Hardwicke joins out of loyalty to Valli’s father. But Valli takes an instant dislike to Bridges and does not want him along. Ford doesn’t see the sense in that since Bridges is clearly a pro who would be a great help to the team. Ford himself still refuses to go, saying that he’ll tag along to the first base camp. Then to the second base camp, then the third until his love for Valli finally commits him to the team.

As Ford gets higher, his belief in himself becomes stronger and his cynical “take it or leave it” attitude regarding who and what Bridges is and represents morphs into anger. There’s a great scene where Bridges, dedicated to his own beliefs, confronts Ford with his own lack of belief in anything. Ford tells Bridges that they are going to finish together or not at all. Before the movie is over, we lose several climbers but not in the way we might expect and it’s that element of surprise, along with a level of suspense built not just on the event of the climb but on how these characters will confront their demons and meet their destinies, that makes this film such a fun, suspenseful character driven adventure film. 

Just hanging out at the lodge, talking Nietzsche.  No big whoop.

This is one of those movies that makes you feel like you’re on vacation. Watching The White Tower gives me the same feeling I get watching things like David Lean’s Summertime or Mike Newell’s Enchanted April. With the exception of Bridges, all the actors play likeable people that I want to know and hang out with. They aren’t just caricatures and that carries a lot of weight. Ford and Rains and Hardwicke and Valli all have interesting things to say. I identified with the Ford character who clearly feels that he’s tried enough, gave it his best, and just wants to hide in his pretty mountain village. But there’s aspects of some of the others that I also identified with as well. This made it easier to feel that I was on the journey with them. Also making that easier was the great effects. It’s hard to get a feel for it from the trailer but on a HD screen in Technicolor, this movie looks terrific. I have to think that this movie must have been a big deal for RKO who almost never did Technicolor films because of the expense. I don’t know if this was a hit or not for them, but it sure looks like they gambled a lot on it given how amazing this film looks.  TCM shows The White Tower from time to time and the film is also available on dvd through Warner Archives.

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