On May 28, 1993, the action-adventure flick Cliffhanger hit theaters.
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The film, which stars Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow, follows a group of rescue climbers duped into helping some violent criminals after a botched aerial robbery. It’s just as ridiculous and fun as it sounds, and over the years, it’s become a classic outdoors film.
In honor of Cliffhanger’s 30th anniversary, here are 30 facts to know:
- The concept of Cliffhanger was developed by John Long, an American author and longtime climber. Long has actually published more than a dozen books about rock climbing. However, comic-book movie screenwriter Michael France used the idea to write the screenplay, which was later revised by Stallone. Therefore, Long receives credit for developing the premise instead of the screenplay.
- The project between Stallone and director Renny Harlin went through multiple iterations, including one in which Stallone, as an ex-Navy SEAL, fought off pirates during a hurricane, but that proposal cost too much money. Therefore, they settled on Die Hard on a mountain.
- Speaking of Die Hard, a movie about an average Joe in the wrong place at the wrong time, Harlin directed the second one, Die Hard 2, or Die Hard at an airport.
- Although Cliffhanger is set in the Colorado Rockies, most of it was filmed in the Dolomite mountains in Italy. Harlin explained they chose the Italian Alps because they’re the “highest, most dangerous, most beautiful. In this movie, the mountains really are one of the characters.”
- To access the Italian mountain range, the film’s production company reportedly paid about $45,000 to the Italian government, which would be about $96,000 today if you figure in inflation. But it was just a drop in the bucket for the $70 million budget.
- For that budget, the film had several backers. The initial investor, now defunct Carolco Pictures, reportedly had financial problems during principal photography, which forced production to shut down twice, so the film took on additional investors.
- Another of those investors was Tristar Pictures, who funded half of the movie’s budget. It would be the last time a TriStar movie would feature its original logo.
- Parts of the film were shot in the United States, specifically, in the Ute Mountain reservation in Colorado. And because of that, filmmakers thank the Ute Tribe in the credits.
- In the opening scene, where the woman falls to her death, they dropped her — but not all the way, of course. For the scene, they dangled the actress using a secondary safety wire, used a stunt woman in the initial “drop” using a bungee cord, and then a combination of a blue screen and dummy for the dramatic fall.
- Harlin said the opening scene intended to make you feel anxious, scared, and vulnerable. It was so iconic and well done that it was spoofed repeatedly, including in films like Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls where the woman is replaced with a raccoon.
- In the fall scene, the film shows a Black Diamond climbing harness breaking, but the filmmakers clarify in the credits that the harness was specifically modified to fail.
- To this day, Cliffhanger holds the Guinness World Record for “most expensive film stunt performed in the air.” For the scene, a character ziplines from plane to plane. How it earned the moniker, though, stuntman Simon Crane said he’d do it for $1 million because of the risk factor.
- In that aerial scene, however, we also get to see the film’s McGuffin, a briefcase full of $100 million in freshly printed $1,000 bills from the Denver Mint, but there are two problems. First, the denomination was discontinued in 1969 and second, the Denver Mint only makes coins, which would be impossibly heavy and really make the plot borderline absurd.
- Another amazing scene involved a crashed helicopter dangling from a cliff finally dropping and exploding. To make that, filmmakers miniaturized the set – mountain, rockface, and helicopter.
- Stallone, known for taking on physically demanding roles and doing a lot of his own stunts, actually only did some of his own climbing because of his fear of heights.
- However, the actor did enough climbing during filming that his hands were roughed up enough to reportedly lose dates – his model girlfriends didn’t want to feel his callused hands.
- When Stallone wasn’t doing his climbing, it was professional climber Wolfgang Güllich. The German climber was considered one of the most influential of his time as he was the first to complete some of the most difficult pitches on record.
- Unfortunately, Güllich died in a car crash about nine months before the film hit theaters after reportedly falling asleep behind the wheel. However, Ron Kauk, the climber who made the first free ascent of Yosemite’s Washington Column, also filled in as Stallone’s stuntman.
- On opening weekend, Cliffhanger came in first place for ticket sales, beating out a few forgettable films as well as Super Mario Bros.
- When the Cliffhanger game was released in 1994, Electronic Gaming Monthy awarded it “Worst Movie-to-Game” for the year.
- However, there was a silver lining to the video game aspect. The programmer who coded the game later made the source code publicly available for educational purposes.
- Jeff Rovin, who novelized the film for readers, also penned Stallone’s biography.
- Cliffhanger was nominated for four Golden Rasberry Awards, including worst picture, worst supporting actor, worst supporting actress, and worst screenplay.
- On top of that, climbers had a mixed bag of responses. They liked the real yet absurd climbing scenarios but hated the piton gun, which Stallone’s character uses a couple of times. Once to drive pitons – a little peg to support climbing rope – into a rock face and another time to shoot someone through the ice. In reality, a piton gun doesn’t exist. Pitons are driven into rock using a drill and hammer.
- While the film wasn’t widely embraced by critics, influential reviewer Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars. He wrote in his review that “[Cliffhanger] delivers precisely what it promises. It’s a big-budget extravaganza with a lot of stunts and special effects, starring Stallone as a professional mountain climber and rescue expert, who gets roped into a scheme masterminded by criminal skyjackers.”
- Cliffhanger also received some Oscar nominations for really niche categories like Best Sound, Best Sound Effects, and Best Visual Effects.
- Award-winning stage and film actor John Lithgow almost didn’t play the villain, Eric Qualen, and instead, they almost cast Christopher Walken. In an interview with GQ, Lithgow explained: “I think I had been cast as the sort of second villain. My role was supposed to be Christopher Walken’s, but he bailed and they sort of moved me up like the night before.”
- And if you’ve wondered what Qualen’s accent was supposed to be… so was Lithgow. He explained that he sat with the director trying to figure it out, and they floated the idea of American, South African, and even British. He told Harlin: “I don’t think I can master South African overnight. And I think we should make it something other than an American. Let’s just go the Alan Rickman route.” And if you’re unsure about what that means, it’s another Die Hard reference (Rickman’s character, Hans Gruber, had an ambiguous British-German accent).
- A few times, Stallone reportedly explored the idea of making a sequel to Cliffhanger entitled The Dam, which would’ve been Die Hard at the Hoover Dam.
- As of May 2023, Stallone is once again planning something new for Cliffhanger. Whether it’s a reboot or sequel, however, remains to be seen. In an interview with ScreenRant, director Ric Roman Waugh explained how a project is in development and it’ll most likely have a female lead.
Are you a fan of Cliffhanger? What are your favorite facts? Let us know in the comments below.