Film: Those Men in the White Suits

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
News from the Field, February 1997

Film: Those Men in the White Suits

Soldiering, via documentary, with the pioneers of the modern ski industry
By John Skow

Once, before ski areas were theme parks and mountains were still where the storm gods lived, the law of unintended consequences touched this country in a magical way. World War II was clouding up, and a skier named Charles Minot Dole, who had earlier organized the National Ski Patrol, got permission from President Roosevelt to start a division of mountain troops.

Today the legendary Tenth Mountain Division exists as a thinning number of old guys with weathered faces--and now as a handsome memorial, a documentary called Fire on the Mountain, just released in about 15 theaters nationwide by First Run Features. Producer-directors Beth and George Gage treat us to masses of riveting footage of the division's three years of training in Colorado and the bitter months of fighting in Italy.

In the manner of old men, especially old men who have survived wars, the depicted ex-soldiers seem eager to raise a glass to their own youths. And it's hard to blame them. After the years of training--in which they completed the first winter climb of Mount Rainier--and the brutal campaign in Europe, they returned home, where most took to the mountains and began building the outdoor industry. Some 2,000 of them became ski instructors. Pete Seibert and Bob Parker founded Vail; Friedl Pfeifer, Aspen; Paul Petzoldt, the National Outdoor Leadership School. David Brower transformed the Sierra Club into an environmental force. And track coach Bill Bowerman cofounded Nike.

Fire on the Mountain gets an astonishing amount of this history onto the screen. The moods seem right and real, beginning with the college-boy high spirits of the training years. The film becomes darker and grainier as the Tenth Mountain soldiers suck up their courage and climb toward the gun emplacements of Riva Ridge. And it lightens again as the grand old campaigners tell us how it used to be--a reminiscence we're all too happy to indulge them by film's end.

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