James Bond...on Skis

Not surprisingly, the world's most glamorous secret agent visited some of the world's most glamorous ski resorts and peaks. You will be stirred, not shaken.
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Not surprisingly, the world's most glamorous secret agent visited some of the world's most glamorous ski resorts and peaks. You will be stirred, not shaken.
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The scene remains one of the most famous opening sequences in film—ever. James Bond wakes up in a mountain cabin in bed with a beautiful woman, receives a phone call, dresses quickly and skis off. He’s immediately pursued down the slopes and, at one point, spins backward on his boards to fend off attackers with a ski-pole rocket gun as he’s racing down the mountain. The helicopter camera pans back wide on Bond as he straightlines for a cliff. And then he launches. Check out classic ski scenes from Bond films.

Bond flies off the cliff, releasing his skis, which tumble into the abyss. And then he falls. And falls. Finally he deploys his chute—and there’s a big Union Jack across it. Freeze-frame and cue the Bond music.

This is in 1977. The film is The Spy Who Loved Me. BASE jumping is still in its infancy, and Bond freefalls on skis well before the rest of the world has even contemplated such a move. Nobody does it better—and it isn’t a special effect.

In the film’s opening at the summit, Bond is stunt-skier Ed Lincoln being chased down glaciers above Pontresina, Switzerland. Then Rick Sylvester takes over, ripping down the slopes into the open on Canada’s Baffin Island as the camera shot widens. Skilled alpinist, stunt skier and all-around madman, Sylvester simply skis off the 3,500-foot-high rock wall and gets as far as possible away from the cliff before he pulls cords to release his skis, and then his chute.

You didn’t have to be a skier to love this stuff. But as a skier I was totally wowed. The same way I’d been when I started reading the James Bond novels 10 years earlier. The man knows how to live. And Sylvester’s real-life jump was as mind-blowing as any of Bond’s antics. It foreshadowed a new era of extreme sports, and confirmed that skiing was still sexy, fashionable and exhilarating. Why else would they keep putting ski sequences in the Bond movies?

Bond is an English hero, created by the very English Ian Fleming and adapted for the big screen by an English company, Eon Productions. As such, the films have always possessed a European sensibility. They have mostly taken place away from America, in glamorous and exotic locales. And the Bond film oeuvre is filled with dashing ski scenes, which reflects Europeans’ traditional love of both the sport and the beau monde.

***

I figured if anyone could have a good time skiing, it was James Bond. So I set off to retrace the ski tracks of the world’s most famous secret agent.

For both of us, it started in Mürren, Switzerland, where they filmed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS) in 1969. I’ve been there several times, and always with Bond in the back of my mind—in part because Mürren doesn’t let you forget about him. At nearly 10,000 feet in the Bernese Alps, on top of a ragged and windswept summit called the Schilthorn, the Piz Gloria “James Bond” revolving restaurant commands sweeping views that include the famous trinity of the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau.

In 1968, producers were looking for a location to film OHMSS, one of Fleming’s most popular novels. They found a lift company in Mürren that needed funds to complete a cable car to the top of the Schilthorn and a restaurant they were building there. The film company helped with the financing in return for the right to be the first to use the complex, which took on the name of Piz Gloria, Fleming’s moniker for Blofeld’s mountaintop hideout. As kitschy as it is—spinning around in a sky-high cafe eating “James Bond spaghetti”—it’s also a stunning location for anything: a movie, lunch, sightseeing and, especially, skiing.

The revolving restaurant housed a bevy of beauties in the film, along with then unknown Telly Savalas as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s archenemy. Reminders of the building’s storied history are everywhere. The souvenir shop sells pins, patches, coffee mugs, caps, lighters and watches with James Bond logos. Downstairs is a hallway decorated with large stills from the movie. And outside is the viewing deck where helicopters landed in the film.

When Bond escapes from Blofeld, it’s supposedly night, made so by blue filters on the cameras. Bond, played by George Lazenby and stunt-doubled by former German ski-racing star Ludwig Leitner and Swiss Olympic champion Bernhard Russi, drops from the tramway terminal onto the summit run at Mürren.

Thus commences a frenzied tour of the spectacular Mürren slopes, as well as the Lauterbrunnen Valley, one of the most beautiful waterfall-and-glacier-studded box canyons on earth. In the movie, several bad guys plummet off the sheer 2,500-foot cliffs into the valley. In the real world, people pay to do that in tandem paragliders. Or they just stick to the skiing, a big, rangy experience that can cover more than 7,000 vertical feet when the snow is right. Stop-and-stare views of the surrounding peaks—huge, hovering massifs constantly sloughing spindrift into the blue skies—are everywhere. The long runs have some of the best pitches in the Jungfrau region (which includes nearby Wengen and Grindelwald) and can wander into lovely off-piste routes, like the ones Bond and his leading lady, played by Diana Rigg, get to rip prior to being trapped by an avalanche.

Even today, with its high-tech lifts and vehicle-free design, Mürren has a retro buzz. The Lauterbrunnen Valley feels as though it hasn’t been fully discovered, a vibe underscored by trappings from skiing’s golden age: cable cars rising up icy cliffs, chic people enjoying a day of sport in the mountains, small villages with horse-drawn sleighs and tall stucco church steeples. One day I even spot a vintage Aston Martin DB5 (the racing model mentioned in Goldfinger) that could have been waiting for Bond to jump in.

I load my gear into a Volvo and cruise along the serpentine mountain roads of the Jungfrau region and up to the front door of Interlaken’s five-star Grand
Victoria-Jungfrau Hotel, the perfect Bond layover. An elegant casino is next door, and the hotel and spa are among the finest in the Alps, ideal for meeting a Bond man such as Stefan Zurcher. He was born and still lives in nearby Wengen and has worked on more than 40 films—nine of them Bond flicks—including the latest Bond adventure, Quantum of Solace, which is scheduled for release in November. Zurcher started his career as a stunt actor in OHMSS when he was 23.

“When you’re young you don’t think about getting hurt,” he says. “We always sent Ludwig Leitner off first, sometimes still a bit drunk. I worked on that film for five months. They completely remade the bobsled run for it.” I remark that the avalanche scene seemed realistic, especially for 1969. “We blasted off a whole cornice to create a real avalanche. It was huge.” He grins. “Then for close-ups we built ramps and dumped snow off them and had people tumbling. It was difficult.”

Zurcher also worked with famed ski cinematographer and fashion designer Willy Bogner Jr. on ski scenes in Switzerland for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and A View to a Kill (1985). In typical movie protocol, Switzerland stood in for Austria in the former and Siberia in the latter.

In View, Roger Moore’s Bond doubles are six-time world champion freestyle skier John Eaves and snowboarding pioneer Tom Sims. Suzy Chaffee even does some of the ballet skiing behind the opening title silhouette sequence.

In one scene, Eaves is down to a single ski when he commandeers a moving snowmobile by jumping on it, kicking off his ski in the process. Stefan Zurcher was driving the snowmobile, which blows up just as Eaves jumps off. Then Tom Sims takes over as Bond, grabbing the remnant of one of the snowmobile’s metal ski tips and riding it away like a snowboard. It was only 1985, but snowboarding had made its major motion picture debut.

Famous freeheeler and renowned ski guide John Falkiner played skiing bad guys in several Bond films, including View. “It was filmed mainly in the Diavolezza glacier area,” he recalls. “We did a lot of chase sequences at high speed along the edge of crevasses and jumped off a lot of different things, falling and losing control down big ice walls as we chased Bond. All in all, a fantastic time.”

I skied some of the same View terrain by hiking up the Morteratsch Glacier from the top of the Diavolezza ski area, and it’s as raw and fun as it looks. You can check it out as you ski to the open-air Glacier Bar and down to the Engadine Valley on one of skiing’s most legendary backcountry runs.

In between View and The Spy Who Loved Me, Bogner and Zurcher also worked on For Your Eyes Only’s 35-minute ski sequence in 1981, the second longest in Bond history, behind OHMSS. While the skiing in OHMSS was based on the novel, it was completely invented by the filmmakers for Eyes, offering an exciting tour of Cortina, Italy, which is where I head next.

“The snow this year is better in Innsbruck,” a fellow spy says to Bond on top of Cortina’s signature Tofana ski mountain. “But not in St. Moritz,” replies Bond. After getting briefed, he begins what, even for Bond, is a long day in the mountains. It involves the beautiful daughter of an Italian gangster, a lovely ice skater, Cortina’s Olympic ice stadium, a chase featuring bad guys on motorcycles with wickedly studded tires, and an East German biathlete who keeps trying to shoot Bond during a competition instead of his targets. And this is all before lunch.

The Cortina backdrop is busy and glamorous. A former Winter Olympics host (1956) and one of the most gorgeous resorts in the world, Cortina is perched in the heart of the spellbinding Ampezzo Dolomites. Magnificent towering buttresses of rose-colored stone are stacked on every side of the resort, lending it an otherworldly brightness and buoyancy.

The village—routinely adorned with expansive public art displays—is compelling in its own right, with architecture that pays tribute to its Mediterranean heritage with lots of pastel stuccos and iron railings. Cortina is so bursting with la dolce vita—elegant dining, beautiful people, fast cars—that it seems even when the cameras aren’t rolling they should be. And they have rolled a lot here, with more than 30 movies and shows shot at the resort. The luxe Miramonti Grand Hotel, where Bond bivouacs in room 300, has hosted generations of stars.

A popular, if frenzied, tour will introduce you to all five of Cortina’s exceptional ski areas in the same day. That’s the way Bond’s day feels in For Your Eyes Only as he flees down Cortina’s 90-meter Olympic ski jump, fighting two villains on the way—on what look to be standard Olin Mark VIs, no less.

“I jumped on Olin 205 slaloms, to be exact,” Eaves tells me. “You’ll notice I have my own jump, allowing me to gain altitude over the nordic jumper immediately, then I would slowly lose altitude as he went ahead, blocking me from the sights of the sniper below. Olin was so stoked about me being Bond, they manufactured my skis for the film with serial numbers starting with 007. Roger Moore did me an incredible favor by holding the skis so you could see who made them.”

After the ski-jump scene, Bond is chased yet again by the fiendish motorcyclists, forcing Eaves to jump onto and off of a restaurant deck before ending up on a bobsled track—another famous Bond stunt. Still on skis, Eaves is bracketed by a bobsled in front and motorbikes behind as he races down the ribbon of ice before finally bailing and escaping. “I trained in the St. Moritz bob run over Christmas in 1980, with Willy Bogner filming me,” Eaves says. “I could go on for hours about how wild it was. Being laid out
horizontally on an ice wall at 60 miles per hour, held there by the force of gravity, almost defies the laws of nature.”

The Olympic bobsled run is still used for competitions. You can pay for a ride, piloted by drivers who treat your two-minute run as a personal challenge to scare any good sense out of you.

For 1987’s The Living Daylights, the producers didn’t revisit a bobsled run, instead settling for cello-case sledding near Weissenssee, Austria. “We did a ski sequence in a specially built sled that held the actors plus the cameraman. Stefan Zurcher and I controlled the sled with its valuable cargo,” says John Falkiner.

The most recent Bond ski sequence was in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, in which the mountains around Les Grands Montets near Chamonix, France, stood in for Azerbaijan. Chamonix and Verbier skiers worked on the film crews and doubled for Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, who tangles with motorized ultralight planes called parahawks, which land and become fan-powered snowmobiles. Bond survives an avalanche—with a girl, naturally—by using a ski jacket Q gave him that inflates into a huge bubble.

“We had Brosnan on a big toboggan for close-ups,” Zurcher says. “We would prepare a nice piste by the trees, then ski with a camera and toboggan about 50 miles an hour down to an easy run-out.” World’s ski scenes are brief but attention-grabbing, presenting a spectacular show of some of the colossal backcountry skiing available around Les Grands Montets. And Chamonix is a town Bond would have been at home in, with its legendary extreme-sports culture, intense beauty and colorful characters.

All over the Alps last winter, word spread that Daniel Craig, the latest Bond, was taking ski lessons and that Marc Forster, the Swiss director of Quantum, wanted to shoot in his home country and include a lot of ski scenes. The same rumors even surfaced in the London tabloids, though they turned out to be false.

No worries. Inevitably, there will be more Bond films, and they will most certainly continue to feature the glamour and inherent danger of sliding down a mountain. Even though Fleming’s novels only put Bond on the slopes one time, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, skiing stunts and exotic mountain resorts have become part of the Bond lexicon. When M debriefs Bond near the end of that novel, he says, “Well, you were pretty lucky to get out of that one, James. Didn’t know you could ski.”

“I only just managed to stay upright, sir,” James answers with typical Bondian aplomb. “Wouldn’t like to try it again.”

- SKI Magazine, November 2008