It would be easy to dismiss Cliffhanger as little more than a fun riff on the Die Hard formula, with the action switching from the heights of Nakatomi Plaza to the Colorado Rockies. After all, the film largely pits Sylvester Stallone’s Gabe Walker—often wearing little more than a t-shirt on the mountain in place of John McClane’s vest—against a crack team of international terrorists led by John Lithgow, who is in deliciously deranged form as a psychotic military intelligence expert turned thief.
The comparisons are not helped by the fact that Cliffhanger arrived at a time when the Die Hard formula was being milked for all its worth. In the 12 months prior to its release, moviegoers had been served up the likes of Passenger 57 (Die Hard on a plane) and Under Siege (Die Hard on a boat), with Speed (Die Hard on a bus) hot on their heels a year later. It also doesn’t help that Cliffhanger was directed by Renny Harlin, of Die Hard 2 fame.
Yet to dismiss this Stallone vehicle as simply Die Hard on a mountain does not do justice to the heights scaled in terms of cinematic spectacle. More importantly, the movie remains a lot of fun, thanks largely to game performances from the likes of Lithgow. Having made the inexplicable decision to play the villainous Eric Qualen as an Englishman, Lithgow dials things up to 11 and never turns it down, resulting in a performance full of so much scenery-chewing you half expect him to pick a stalactite out of his teeth.
But somehow it works, setting the tone for the rest of Qualen’s assembled team of bad guys. This results in similarly deranged turns from the likes of Leon Robinson as the Kung fu fighting Kynette and Craig Fairbrass as soccer player turned henchman Delmar.
Some credit obviously goes to a script originally penned by future GoldenEye scribe Michael France, which underwent significant rewrites by Stallone. The result is a film packed with some impressive narrative twists as well as the violent deaths and memorable set pieces action movie fans of the age were accustomed to. Yet for all of Cliffhanger’s bluster, arguably the movie’s greatest strength lies in its terrifying prologue.
As the credits roll, we are introduced to Gabe climbing on his way to help an injured Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) and his inexperienced climber girlfriend, Sarah (Michelle Joyner), who have ended up stranded on a peak in the Rockies. What seems like a simple enough rescue takes a terrifying turn though when midway through climbing along a line between two peaks, Sarah’s harness breaks, leaving her dangling from a loose strap, thousands of feet off the ground. Though Gabe is initially able to grab her, the gloved hand of a panic stricken Sarah ultimately slips out of his grasp and she plummets to her death.
There’s obviously little logic to Sarah’s demise. In fact, several seasoned climbers slammed what was depicted. Author and climber R.J. Secor was among them, telling the L.A. Times: “When that harness broke, I thought, ‘This is another world.’” The manufacturer of the safety harnesses featured in the scene went one step further, asking that their logo be scrubbed from the footage and that a disclaimer be added to the credits assuring viewers this could never happen.
Yet, while it may defy logic, the scene effectively tapped into the most basic fear surrounding mountain climbing: What if something goes wrong? It left an indelible mark on moviegoers with online discussions about Cliffhanger on forums like Reddit still dominated by this one scene.
“I love this movie, but have to force myself to not fast forward through the beginning,” one fan wrote. “It traumatized me as a kid,” said another. A third agreed, “That opening scene is some terrifying s***.”
That was always the aim for Harlin, who explained on a DVD commentary for the film how he wanted to “nail the audience into their seats” with an introduction that made it clear “this movie is gonna be surprising. When you expect something will go this way, it will go the other way.”
Stallone also saw it as a way to defy his Rambo-like savior persona. “There’s no way that Stallone is going to drop this girl,” Stallone said in the same commentary. “The whole premise is, ‘for sure, she almost will fall but he’ll grab her pinky finger and hoist her to safety.’ We decided to go totally against that.” But while Stallone’s writing and Harlin’s direction deserve plaudits, Cliffhanger’s nightmarish opening might have fallen flat were it not for the film’s true unsung hero, Joyner.
In a matter of minutes, Joyner’s Sarah conveyed a level of abject terror that was both believable and instantly relatable. Even now, Joyner’s eyes and panicked expression of unadulterated terror coupled with her repeated pleas of “don’t let me die” remain seared into the memory as the stuff of nightmares as does the sight of her stuffed animal toy, falling from her grasp (the movie went through as many as 8 of the teddies.) And when we sit down with Joyner ahead of the film’s 30th anniversary, she can still recall knowing how crucial it was to bring that level of intensity to her audition for the role. But it came at a cost.
“I was in somebody’s office in Burbank, instead of the side of a mountain, but I really had to convince them I was terrified for my life,” she tells us. “As I was leaving, my legs just kind of went out from under me. I had been aiming for such a level of terror and fear and panic that my heart was racing and I realized, ‘Wow, my body doesn’t know I’m acting.’ That had never happened to me before.”
Joyner would require little motivation when it came to filming though. After her audition, she got a call from Harlin telling her she had got the part, albeit with one caveat. “I had to agree to be on the mountain peak for the opening sequence,” she remembers. “He wanted to have the camera fly over in a helicopter and zoom in on us without any cuts. It was super important to him.”
Harlin’s pursuit of authenticity on Cliffhanger remains the stuff of legend. In arguably the most famous instance, stuntman Simon Crane pocketed a cool $1 million after agreeing to travel along a zip line positioned between two planes traveling at 15,000 feet. Filmed as part of the aerial transfer scene that takes place later in the film, it remains the most expensive aerial stunt ever. Harlin led by example. Another story goes that he jumped off one cliff wearing a harness to show how much he trusted the safety equipment to work.
Joyner wasn’t being asked to do that, but it was still scary enough. She and Rooker would be lowered out of a hovering helicopter (the helicopter couldn’t land) before immediately being clipped into safety harnesses and guided to the position we find them in at the start of the movie.
“That was a little terrifying because it was about 4,000 feet off the ground and very narrow,” Joyner says.
Despite the daunting nature of what was required, Joyner felt she was in good hands after speaking with Cliffhanger’s seasoned stunt coordinator Joel Kramer who assured her everything would go off without a hitch. Filming took place around the Dolomites of Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, chosen by Harlin due to their relative accessibility by cable car.
“We were only supposed to be doing the stuff on the mountain top in Italy for about a week. Then we would shoot everything else down in the studio in Rome.” Joyner says. “We ended up being up there for like two months, mostly because of bad weather.”
In the scene, Rooker’s Hal, followed by Joyner’s Sarah, are supposed to travel along a zip line from where they are positioned on one peak over to another, where their rescue helicopter awaits. That second peak served as a base camp of sorts during filming with food and restroom facilities available to cast and crew. The only problem was how to get there. “They strung up this little rope bridge,” says Joyner. “It was terrifying because you literally had to go between the two peaks looking 4,000 feet down.”
Eventually, however, Joyner began to get used to the high life. ”We were there for so long, I really started to get acclimated to the heights. I wasn’t without fear but the more I was there, the more I was climbing.”
Joyner would initially go out in the specially constructed “camera cage” set up to capture stunt footage on the mountain to watch filming. Soon enough she was even putting on a harness and going out on the wire set up between the two peaks.
“It became clear to everyone that I really at that point didn’t need a stunt double,” she says. “I was going out on the harness just to get over and have lunch.” Eventually, she was asked whether she would be happy to film the bulk of Sarah’s scene on the wire. She said yes.
“Nobody forced me to do it. It wasn’t like I was under pressure. There was no pressure at all.” Instead, Joyner saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something spectacular. “There’s not very many human beings that can say that they were on a wire 4,000 feet off the ground.”
The stunt work involved her going out halfway along the wire between the two peaks before her safety harness “failed” and she slipped down to the end of the disintegrating straps. In reality, Joyner’s terrifying dangle over the void was achieved using a hidden wire that ran from her climbing harness up and out through her sleeve,
“Everything you see in the movie where you can see my face, for the most part, was shot on location,” Joyner says. “They had another wire running above the wire that we were on with a camera that was remote controlled.” One of the only exceptions were the shots of Joyner looking up at Stallone in the final few seconds before her fall. Stunt double Georgia Phipps was then drafted in for the fall itself; a thousand-foot freefall on a descender rig.
While Joyner was okay going out on the wire, the sequence in which her harness breaks and she drops a couple of feet was difficult to film, even with the knowledge she was wearing a safety wire. “That was the worst,” she admits. “I felt like if something went wrong, there was nothing I could do to save myself. That was hard. I was actually in tears when I got off the wire that day. I could barely even walk. A lot of that terror that you see is actually real, because I was actually out there.”
Joyner certainly delivered a believable performance. In fact, it ended up being a little too believable for the film’s safety crew. “The first time I’m out there when the harness broke, I started screaming, saying ‘I’m falling, I’m falling,’ and one of them came rushing out and grabbed me and brought me in. I was like, ‘Why did you do that? It was going really well.’ He said ‘oh my God, I thought you were in trouble.’”
Terrifying or not, in Rooker she had a co-star who supported her every step of the way. “He was a really great partner in that whole sequence,” Joyner recalls. “Super supportive and totally fearless. He was game for doing the whole thing as well, so we had a great time up there. I was happy when it was over though, only because I was relieved nothing had gone wrong.”
She does wonder if she would ever take those kinds of risks again though. “Only because I know how easy it is to make it look like it’s actually real when it’s not, especially now,” she says. “But I’m not sorry that I did it.”
But while Rooker proved to be a supportive and encouraging presence around Joyner, she had a less positive experience around Stallone.
Joyner had been “so excited” about working with Harlin and Stallone on the remainder of her scenes in the studio in Rome, and received a warm welcome when she first arrived. “Everyone gave me a standing ovation because they saw the footage and they were really amazed and happy because it made their life so much easier; they didn’t have to cut around me all the time.”
However, as filming began things quickly turned sour. Joyner said she was approached by the movie’s script supervisor who explained that since she was one of only two people who were out on the mountain and here in the studio, she needed to let them know, for the sake of continuity, if something they were doing did not match what was filmed up there. Afterward, and having exchanged greetings with Stallone, Harlin began discussing the first shot of the day with the two actors. It was at this point that Joyner noticed an inconsistency with what Harlin had planned for the shot and what was filmed up on the mountain.
She flagged the issue there and then. What followed left her stunned. “Stallone looked at me and said ‘why don’t you shut the fuck up? What? Did you write this fucking script?’ I looked at the script supervisor. She had just told me to tell them if it wasn’t going to match and she was just pretending she was writing something down. Not even Renny came to my defense. That was super, super disappointing after everything that I had done.”
It was perhaps a shock for the crew as much as Joyner since she had been so present throughout sequences filmed atop the mountain. Unlike Stallone, she spent weeks above the mountainous snowline. And while the movie star would later tell the press in 1993 about incidents where wind nearly blew him off a ladder while filming that opening sequence, Joyner asserts Stallone never even left the studio for Cliffhanger’s opening sequence. “Stallone was never on the mountain. He did everything on the soundstage,” she says. “Everything in that entire sequence was his stunt double.” This would seem to line up with the recollections of Ron Kauk and Wolfgang Güllich, who are both credited as Stallone’s principal climbing double.
Meanwhile an inside source told Spy magazine at the time that Stallone was hesitant to film the scenes due to his fear of heights and a hand injury. “We would be shooting 800 to 900 feet off the ground, and he just didn’t want to go up there,” the unnamed source told the publication. “All of the major action in the film was done with a stunt double – about 95 percent.”
In that sense, Joyner theorizes that Stallone resented her because she represented a reminder that he wasn’t brave enough to do the sequence on location. Whatever the reasoning, Stallone remained difficult around Joyner for the rest of their time filming together.
“I did not have a good time down at the studio,” she says. “He was just being an asshole pretty much the whole time. That was so disappointing. I’ve never been treated [that way] before on a set. But that’s just part of the territory when you work with people like that.”
Den of Geek reached out to Mr. Stallone and his publicity team several times for comment on these claims but received no response.
Joyner was torn over whether or not to disclose what she paints as an unfriendly atmosphere on set, fearing it would “burst many people’s bubble” about Stallone. But she decided she had stayed quiet long enough. “He was never nice to me,” she says. “I’ve previously always sugarcoated it, but it’s been 30 years and the guy was a dick.”
An already uncomfortable encounter was made that much more awkward when, during the crucial moment when Sarah’s gloved hand slips out of Gabe’s grasp, Joyner and Stallone found that the glove simply would not come off. In the end, the costume department had to add in a seam, while a mixture of vaseline, oil and Nivea lotion loosened things up.
Though Stallone never apologized for the alleged outburst, Joyner does recall him approaching her at the film’s premiere to say, “I always knew that you were going to be great in this and I’m glad it turned out so good… I guess that was his way of trying to make up for it.”
Stallone also praised Joyner’s efforts on the DVD commentary for the film, noting she was “extraordinarily adept at bringing out these emotions in a very, very short time.” He added, “The fact she was doing most of her own stunts was really instrumental in making this whole thing so real.”
Thankfully, Joyner has happier memories from her encounters with Cliffhanger’s other big star.
“I became very close with John Lithgow because he was there for a long time too, and we were staying at the same place,” she says. “We became friends and ate dinner a lot together and stuff, and he was a total sweetheart.”
She also remembers with some amusement the moment she knew her scene had entered the pop culture lexicon: It was spoofed in the opening sequence of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. “That was really funny because I took my kids to that movie,” she says. “I kind of thought ‘Wow, I’ve really arrived now. Jim Carrey is parodying one of my movies.’”
Even today, Joyner meets fans who either ask her if she was on the mountain for real or describe the impact her scene had on them. “People say to me time and time again, ‘I could not get the look on your face out of my head.’ It really struck a chord with people.” To this day, she also remains hesitant to revisit the scene among friends and family. “It’s hard to watch because it really looks like someone you love is dying.” Ultimately, despite the highs and lows, Joyner has few regrets about the film. “I’m really proud that I challenged myself to such a degree, physically, because it was a lot,” she says. “I consider myself really lucky to be part of it.”
In some ways, she’s also ended up having the last laugh on Stallone given that it’s her scene that is the first that springs to mind in discussions about the movie. Its impact was clearly a source of concern to Stallone.
Speaking as the scene ends on the DVD commentary, he can be heard to lament, “The only problem with doing the scene was that it would be almost impossible to top later in the movie. I don’t know if we ever did.”