Film Review #203: The Last Ridge
Director: Abbie Kealy
Cast: 10th Mountain Division, Scott Simon
In 1946 Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini made a film called Paisá – criminally hard to find here – whose six episodes depict the Allied liberation of Fascist Italy between 1943-45 through the eyes of ordinary people interacting with, primarily, U.S. GIs. These vignettes often turn on misunderstandings due to language and O’Henry-like twists, but Paisá features pretty keenly observed portrayals by a non-American filmmaker – and it brims with a deeper, more serious appreciation for the Yanks that we are no longer so sure greets our troops abroad.
Certainly not in 1993 Somalia, when a one-hour helicopter mission to capture two aides to warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in Mogadishu’s Bakaara Market neighborhood turned into 15 hours, with 19 US troops and 1,000 Somalis killed. A convoy of the 10th Mountain Division rescued survivors. Ridley Scott put that onscreen in late 2001 in the utterly riveting Black Hawk Down, which you can see, along with Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove (1964), in 35 mm as part of Fort Drum Night at the Palace Theater on the 17th.
Fort Drum is home now to the 10th Mountain Division and there’s another movie screening to get the evening underway. Abbie Kealy’s documentary The Last Ridge (2007) harks back to World War II’s Italian campaign, the founding of the 10th Mountain Division and its current generation. Kealy, who lives outside Baltimore and often makes documentaries for PBS, inherited the letters and diaries of her uncle, Pfc. Stuart Abbott, a 10th Mountain soldier from Chicago who died at 18 on Italy’s Mt. Belvedere the day after writing a last letter to his mother in which he looked forward to “curling up with a good book and an entire pan of hot buttered popcorn.”
Kealy says she’s known about her uncle’s service in the 10th “since I could lace up my ski boots,” but it was a request for photos from historian McKay Jenkins for his own book that prompted Kealy to plan her film (and adopt his title).
Kealy is reticent about her connection to Abbott in the film itself but talks about him elsewhere. Just so, The Last Ridge includes footage of the 10th’s World War II vets revisiting Italy and being feted by their hosts – NBC noted the 61st anniversary of the taking of Riva Ridge during coverage of the Turin Winter Olympics – but it’s a quieter stray detail about the film’s making that illuminates the depth of gratitude similar to that found in Rossellini’s Paisá: before Kealy and her tiny crew could film the Riva Ridge wintertime re-enactment in the Apennines, miles of snow-choked paths were cleared by four Alpini (traditional mountain guides), three of them in their 70s - who would’ve been little boys when the Allies drove the Fascists north out of their country.
Narrated by NPR’s Scott Simon, The Last Ridge spends considerable time on the founding of the 10th. Charles Minot Dole of the National Ski Patrol proposed and recruited this elite division, inspired by the devastation the Germans suffered in Hitler’s first winter Russian campaign and by the Finnish “ski troops” who then repulsed the Soviets invading them. It appears that this civilian bright idea was initially “laughed out of Washington,” but Dole’s persistence and the huge response of volunteers – including many Ivy League graduates and champion sportsmen, even Norway’s world champion Olympic ski jumper Torger Tokle – won out. The 10th got underway two weeks before Pearl Harbor.
Trained under truly grueling conditions for almost four years on Washington’s Fort Lewis and Mt. Rainier, Colorado’s Camp Hale and briefly in Texas at Camp Swift, the 10th first saw action after Japan’s short-lived invasion of two Alaskan islands – landing in heavy fog, 18 were killed by friendly fire after the Japanese had already evacuated.
But in late 1944, the Allies had bogged down after 16 months of fighting, trying to take the northern Apennine Mountains near Bologna. The Allies needed to take Mt. Belvedere and the key to that was Riva Ridge, a series of peaks held as observation points that protected Belvedere and in turn kept a crucial highway out of play for the Allies. Previous frontal assaults on Riva Ridge had cost the Allies 15,000 casualties. When the Allied command turned to the 10th Mountain Division, they expected up to 90 per cent casualties. Instead some 700 men from the 10th went up the back way at night, scaling a sheer 2,000 foot cliff that the Nazis left unguarded. The 10th went on to capture Belvedere in the following days, Mt. Della Torraccia and the village of Torre Iussi, and helped chase the Nazis to the Po River and the mountain tunnels at Lake Garda. On May 7th, the European war ended.
Besides pioneering mountain and winter warfare techniques and gear – Kealy says they “invented extreme sports” – the 10th, which initially disbanded after World War II, seeded a generation of sports and environmental leaders. Besides founding some 60 ski resorts – including Vail and Aspen in Colorado and Vermont’s Sugarbush – 10th vets shaped Outward Bound, Nike, the Sierra Club, and the National Outdoor Leadership School. The Last Ridge DVD contains another 45 minutes worth of extras including more interviews with a number of these vets – especially catch the vivid Tap Tapley - plus current 10th members and author McKay Jenkins, and additional training and making-of footage about the re-enactments shot in Colorado, Italy and Slovenia.
Some of those re-enactments were carried out by current 10th members. The 10th was reactivated in its present form in 1985 and now – 20, 000 strong – makes its home at Fort Drum in northern New York.
Kealy shot her film over three winters, conducted 100 interviews with World War II vets and some two dozen with current 10th members serving in Afghanistan (where she embedded with the 10th), and at Walter Reed Hospital, where older 10th vets are active in visiting the wounded. The Last Ridge also contains captured German military film plus US archival footage. There have been at least seven other books about the 10th – Flint Whitlock’s Soldiers on Skies came out in 1992 but most since 2003 – and two other films, but Kealy enjoyed the input of most of those authors as consultants on her film. The Last Ridge premiered in April 2007 in Vail, Colorado; the next month it screened at Fort Drum and on TV in Watertown and Rochester PBS stations.
The most deployed division in the US armed services, the 10th has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, the Persian Gulf and here at home in Hurricane Andrew Support.
And they’re right in our own back yard.
This review appears in the July 9, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. See The Last Ridge, Black Hawk Down and Dr. Strangelove at Eastwood’s Palace Theater, 2384 James St. on Friday, July 17, part of Fort Drum Night, a Wounded Warriors benefit by Operation Homefront. Doors open at 1730 hours (5:30 PM). Under 17 must be accompanied by an adult. Copies of The Last Ridge DVD will be available at the event. Also check out lastridge.com and 10thmtndivassoc.org. Fort Drum Night is part of Jeff Meyer’s “Brew & View 35 mm Film Series” at the Palace.