Imagine a film that involved classical art theft, globe-trotting assassins, extremist mountain climbing, and illicit governmental operations.
The movie in question is 1975’s The Eiger Sanction. Naturally, a film with this many explosive tropes called for one of Hollywood’s top action stars.
Cue Clint Eastwood, one of the most prominent movie stars at the time.
Because Clint Eastwood has so many memorable films, The Eiger Sanction is often forgotten. Yet, from its origins as a book to the tragic death on the set, the film is not without its fair share of movie history
Keep watching as this video unpacks everything to know about one of Clint Eastwood’s lesser-known films The Eiger Sanction.
Trevanian and the Source Material
The Eiger Sanction is based on a novel by the same name. The Eiger Sanction was written by Trevanian. Trevanian was the pen name of Rodney William Whitaker. Under this pseudonym, he published several novels including the widely known Shibumi and The Main.
However, The Eiger Sanction was his first. The story follows Dr. Jonathan Hemlock, a college professor and professional mountain climber. Though, that is only his public persona. Hemlock is secretly a world-class government assassin who uses his ill-gotten gains to fund his collection of artworks.
Hemlock is hired for one last killing or “sanction” before he retires. But this mission will be his most dangerous yet as it takes place while climbing the Eiger mountain.
If the story sounds a little silly, you aren’t wrong. Many didn’t realize this, but Trevanian wrote The Eiger Sanction as a type of spoof on spy novels like James Bond. In any case, the novel went on to be an international bestseller.
Saddened that readers didn’t realize the intentions of the book, Trevanian followed it up with the even more outlandish book The Loo Sanction
It seemed Hollywood also missed the intentions and mockery of Trevanian’s writing. Universal Studios quickly scooped up the film rights to The Eiger Sanction.
And a movie like this needed a big star.
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Clint Eastwood Helms the Film
Clint Eastwood is Hollywood royalty. In his 60-year career in the film industry, he has acted, directed, produced, and has won academy awards. He has accomplished pretty much everything there is to do with movies.
In 1975, he was at the height of his popularity. Eastwood was fresh off the success as an actor with The Man with No Name Trilogy and Dirty Harry.
At this point in his career, Eastwood had pretty much full control over his projects. And The Eiger Sanction was going to be his next film.
And he was, indeed, going to take full control in multiple capacities.
Though he was a well-known actor, Eastwood didn’t have much reputation as a director. He did have two directorial efforts to his name with Universal, but he wasn’t pleased with a result.
Not only did The Eiger Sanction offer him a chance for redemption, but it would be a way Eastwood could finish his contract with Universal. The actor was looking forward to signing on with Warner Brothers after this movie.
But in for a penny, in for a pound. Eastwood also took on the producer role.
Clint Eastwood claimed he never had much interest in the spy film genre. However, by producing, the plot of The Eiger Sanction gave him a chance to shoot in a remote location away from studio interference.
As the lead, he insisted to shoot the film on location to keep the cast small. Most climbing movies up to this point were shot on a studio set. This would be among the first films with real mountain climbing.
Eastwood even had specialized lightweight cameras developed for mountain filming.
Of course, as the star of the movie, Clint Eastwood was also going to have to learn to mountain climb.
Knowing he wanted the action to look legitimate, Eastwood hired Mike hoover as the climbing technical advisor and trainer for the movie.
At 44 years old, Eastwood was not quite in shape for intense climbing. He had done some climbing in his youth, but he insisted Hoover take him through a rigorous training course. Hoover took Eastwood to Yosemite National Park to train for the role.
Hoover amusingly recalled how Eastwood used brute strength instead of technical skill for his climbing.
Many scenes in the movie feature Eastwood doing his own climbing stunts.
Tragedy While Filming
Though Hollywood productions are full of spectacular stunts and astonishing action, it’s all a form of movie magic. However, these types of movies require stuntmen, stand-ins, and specialists to pull off these moves. And a movie like The Eiger Sanction is packed with such scenes.
The film was shot on location in Switzerland on the face of the actual Eiger mountain. This mountain is regarded by professional climbers to be among the most dangerous undertakings in the world. So treacherous is the mountain that it has earned the German nickname “Mordwand” meaning murder wall.
The Eiger has lived up to the title. The mountain is responsible for taking dozens of lives. Unfortunately, tragedy struck yet again on the mountain while filming The Eiger Sanction.
David Knowles was hired on to the film as a climbing double and stunt photographer. One morning, Knowles along with fellow climber Mike Hoover set out on the mountain to get a shot.
The two men were shooting footage from the climber’s point of view on the face of the Eiger. As the two rappelled down a ledge, a boulder broke free from above and crashed onto them.
The rock broke Hoover’s pelvis and gave him deep muscle bruises. Knowles, in a worse position, was killed by the impact.
The entire film crew including Clint Eastwood were completely grief-stricken. So painful was the event that Clint Eastwood planned to shut down production and cancel the film.
However, after a wake was held for Knowles, the other climbers urged Eastwood to continue filming. After all, they claimed, everyone knew the risks involved in professional rock climbing. To cancel the movie would undo all the hard work they already put in. Furthermore, they felt walking away would make Knowles death meaningless.
Eastwood agreed. The film will always act as a memorial to David Knowles. Keep watching as this video unpacks everything to know about one of Clint Eastwood’s lesser-known films The Eiger Sanction.
So, did a film with this much back story do well at the box office?
Well, it seems not as many people who read the book decided to see the movie.
The Eiger Sanction only hauled in 14 million at the box office. To give you some perspective, Jaws, the highest-grossing film of the same year, made 133 million at the box office.
Yet, The Eiger Sanction wasn’t necessarily a failure, it nearly doubled its 9-million-dollar budget.
This film didn’t turn out to be Clint Eastwood’s highest reviewed film either. Although he had full control of the movie, The Eiger Sanction holds a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Famed movie critic Roger Ebert summed the film up best. He claimed:
“It has a plot so unlikely and confused that we can’t believe it for much more than 15 seconds . . ., but its action sequences are so absorbing and its mountaintop photography so compelling that we don’t care.”
Though it wasn’t a critical darling, it’s nice to know the action climbing sequences the crew worked so hard on paid off. More on this next.
The film had another noteworthy critic. Though he received credit for the film, Trevanian later called the adaptation “vapid.”
Instead of being true to the satire of Trevanian’s spoof genre, the film instead tried to be a typical Hollywood action movie
How the Film Holds Up
As far as Clint Eastwood’s career goes, this movie will never stack up against the likes of Unforgiven, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and Million Dollar Baby.
However, the film does have a little bit of a legacy.
The mountain climbing scene that they worked so hard on and yielded tragedy were noticed by some.
Alex Honnold, professional mountain climber and the focus of the Oscar-winning climbing documentary Free Solo, remarked on the film.
After looking at climbing scenes in Hollywood films, Honnold claimed that The Eiger Sanction had the most realistic climbing in any film.
That is a pretty cool compliment from a living legend of mountain climbing. Our hats go off to David Knowles, Mike Hoover, and the others that made the movie so realistic.
It seems like The Eiger Sanction was a product of its decade. Though it had everything a 70s over-the-top action film could ever want, it still wound up with middling reviews and a lackluster box office performance.
It might not be Clint Eastwood’s most famous movie, but it does have enough Hollywood history and tragedy to make it worth remembering. What do you think? Where does The Eiger Sanction stack up among other Clint Eastwood movies? Should David Knowles’ death have shut down the production? Sound off in the comments.
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