The French Connection on Skis: Britt Ekland and the Tragic Barry Brown share THE ULTIMATE THRILL!

By James Kenney

Why I Chose to Make a Ski Epic!

By Peter S. Traynor, President Centaur Films

“Skiing has been one of the most rewarding discoveries of my life. What can compare with the exhilaration of matching your skills against the elements at Vail, Aspen or Lake Tahoe? Some of my most pleasurable moments have been spent on skis and….as the drama [in the Ultimate Thrill screenplay] unfolded I could see chase scenes that could rival The French Connection only the vehicle would be skis – sky-sailing – a helicopter. The more I envisioned the action, the more “turned-on” I became.

With my love for the sport of skiing there is also a love affair with movies, that goes back to my childhood in Boston. Going to the movies was for me like an experience some people must feel when going to church. At a young age I realized that the movies are the perfect art form.

I had never seen an outstanding ski film….”The Ultimate Thrill” could encompass all of the great skiing action and it could be interwoven into a good story, a great plot. Ski fans would love it – but so would movie fans. 

My mind was made up – I would make this movie.”

There is an escalating inability in modern audiences, it seems, to “project”; I find those indifferent to the James Bond classic Thunderball’s underwater sequences lack creative imagination.  Thunderball was the first Bond film to really wallow in the success of the previous three– THIS was the Bond team’s official answer to “how do we top this?” in response to Goldfinger’s astonishing worldwide success. The underwater sequences were hazardous and difficult, and, remember, people actually were seeing Bond widescreen for the first time at 2:35-1.  All the previous Bonds were 1:85-1, and in 1965 you still had vast theaters with massive screens. 

Thunderball was a huge film designed for a huge film-going experience long before people watched films again and again on pan & scan videotape, never mind the tiny iPhone. 

While the action sequences may not seem “extraordinary” in the 21st century, they most certainly were, and unique, and LARGE in a way I think even those venturing out to see 2021’s No Time to Die in a multiplex cannot ascertain without a bit of that “creative imagination.”

I bring this up because 1974’s obscure The Ultimate Thrill is not a remarkable film by any measure, but it shouldn’t be downright forgotten as it evidently is (it’s never had a DVD or BluRay release and isn’t available for streaming).

It is a film that contains real-life non-CGI ski stunts, lots of them, during the course of its 95-minute running time, that might not seem like “much” right now but are rather damn striking in execution.  It does involve a lot of snow swept landscapes that might lead to a zone out in an undercaffeinated viewer seeing it at 2:45 am on the late show, but the footage, involving skiing at near-impossible-to-reach locations in Colorado, employing helicopters, hang-gliders, and such on solid, virgin-snow banks is indeed striking.

The film is peculiar, and fairly nasty in a rather involving way.  Crazed millionaire industrialist Roland Parley (Eric Braeden) likes to destroy business competitors, plays Russian roulette at business meetings, and has an extremely beautiful trophy wife Michelle (played by the extremely beautiful Britt Ekland). When he erroneously believes he’s caught her at home post-coitus with Tom Moore (Michael Blodgett), a ski-bum he already has had words with at the nearby ski lodge, he loses whatever connection to sanity he had left, and initiates playing “Most Dangerous Game” type antics on the treacherous slopes of Vale, Colorado, starting with Moore.  It should be noted that Michelle’s alleged cheating and his vicious “revenge” also stimulate something in Parley’s libido so that he returns home and beats and sexually assaults his wife, then tries to reinvent the situation by matching her up with another man and potential lover.

Strongish stuff, and the stakes are raised when Parley befriends Joe Straker (Barry Brown), an author, and after a follow-the-leader race where they prove a fairly even match, brings Straker back home from the slopes, though here is where the plot gets a little foggy for me – does Parley know Straker was friends with the now-missing Moore and is simply hellbent on terminating anyone who knew him? (as far as I can tell, he just randomly picks the author for his next hunt, which is kind of coincidental) Also, (and even more coincidentally) it turns out Straker is Michelle’s personal favorite author, and she has his books right there on her mantelpiece. (this doesn’t seem really necessary as it is quite a coincidence and doesn’t seem to pay off other than it allows them to bond quickly).  But it’s all just wicked commotion, anyway, to set up the next ski set piece. 

The film never really delves coherently or deeply into the psychosis of its characters (and they all seem to be suffering from some kind of psychosis, that’s for sure), largely because the producer generally made low-budget exploitation films and did not consider himself an artist.  Yet Traynor loved skiing and he developed a craving to make this film and made the effort to get authentic, exciting ski footage. 

Traynor employed noted ski-filmmaker Roger Brown to shoot the second-unit material for Thrill. Brown was attracted by the chance to shoot in 35 mm as opposed to the standard 16mm used in short ski films, and discussed in press materials at the time how difficult it was to film in the virgin snow conditions in Vale required for the project.

 They needed “Sherpas” to assist the camera people in moving the cameras around the mountains, and despite his veteran status Brown found that he underestimated the cost of filming in untracked snow in difficult locations. An interesting detail is he swapped the usual on-the-snow perspective shots that he felt provided limited perspective with extensive helicopter aerial footage, so that “the audience can not only see where the skier is coming from, but where he is going.” 

Another issue which might help explain the cost overruns on the project was that with the “untracked snow approach…you can’t do retakes in the same location unless you want to wait for a new snow fall. Vail, however, is not short on new exciting locations to move to.” So if they blew a take, they’d have to have their trusty Sherpas pack up the camera equipment and locate a new-found, pristine patch to film on.

You might stare at the screen a few minutes trying to deconstruct just what Braeden is up to with Brown or Ekland, or why Ekland responds a certain way to a given situation, but if you take a few seconds you’ll realize that such things bear no relation whatsoever to the film’s reason for being: the ski footage. 

You don’t have to be an artist to pay skilled technicians to choreograph and shoot impressive action scenes, but impresarios like the Bond producers did seem to take some creative delight in the “family” of characters that make up MI:5, the flamboyant villains, the disposable girls who show up, are enticingly posed and shot, and then bumped off so Bond can show a little personal exacerbation before destroying the jumpsuit clad army defending the often fey, gaudy villain.

Very little of that here.  Braeden is a good actor, and plays the villain for psychological coherence, although it might have worked a bit better if he was allowed to be a little more flamboyantly unbalanced.  Michael Blodgett is frankly disagreeable as the self-impressed Lothario who really gets himself into a mess by incessantly harassing Ekland both in shops and at her home.  We’re not quite sure why Ekland seems to love her husband at the outset (he’s already playing Russian roulette with a broken man whose company he’s taken away when we meet him), but you can infer that she sincerely wants some kind of relationship and is just kidding herself that he’s part of said relationship..

Most fascinating is the tragic, excellent Barry Brown, who if you know him at all it’s likely for Robert Benton’s excellent western Bad Company (with Jeff Bridges), and if not that then for Peter Bogdanovich’s even more excellent Daisy Miller (with Cybil Shepherd).  For many of us, that’s all we knew of this quiet, gifted but alcoholic actor in before we saw his sad, bloated cameo in Joe Dante’s Piranha as a small-town sheriff, shortly before he killed himself.  He did do some episodic work on things like Barnaby Jones, around this time, but it must have been a major step down for an scholarly actor like Brown who had had success in the theater (including authoring four plays) and started his film career with two genuine works of art. 

Well, this is Brown’s other leading role, and as such I’m glad I tracked it down, but it doesn’t present him with much to do.  He plays a sensitive author who has minimal chance to build a rapport with Ekland before Braeden is already chasing him down the slopes, and Brown does fine by it, but it’s a flimsy role. Brown did say at the time of release that “I tried to present him as a sort of poor man’s Dustin Hoffman – the guy who looks like an underdog but [uses] qualities of shrewdness and boldness that underlay his ostensibly quite, sensitive personality.” As the press materials note, “Barry is an intense, introverted man, preferring acting and reading to any sort of a social life,” and his most recent work at the time was playing the role of Edmund in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in New Orleans with Geraldine Fitzgerald.  I was glad to get one more chance to spend time with the interesting Brown in The Ultimate Thrill, even if it isn’t a multifaceted part.

The film isn’t “bad,” –no! –it’s absolutely worth checking out if you think the elements look appealing to you, as they did to me.  Robert Butler was the director, just off of his Emmy-win for directing William Holden in television’s The Blue Knight (he had also recently directed an episode of Columbo), and he certainly can direct; the performances and staging of the non-skiing scenes are fine, although the script credited to Jim McGinn and John Zodrow just doesn’t seem to develop the intriguing psychological strands enough—it all seems flimsy context to get stuntmen back out into the snow. 

Much attention was made in the publicity for the film in its depiction of “sky sailing,” where, as they put it “you hang from a glider and hope for the best.”  Braeden uses this contraption to hunt Brown like a rabbit, a one-man glider that only needs a few steps taken before the flyer is lifted off the ground.  It does lead to some quite impressive footage that raises the issue of what happens if the glider loses control; a motto regarding the sport at the time quoted in the press materials was “never fly higher than you want to fall.”

The film’s various premieres were used as vehicles to raise funds for the U.S. Olympic teams. Ekland, of course, has had a long and noteworthy career and private life and just celebrated her 79th birthday this week. Blodgett, who died in 2007, and who plays the persuasively unctuous and tragic ski-bum, was an interesting case, featured in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dollsas gigolo Lance Rocke. Later he wrote the novel Chuck Norris’ Hero and the Terror was based on and worked on the screenplays of Burt Reynolds’ Rent-a-Cop and Tom Hanks’ Turner and Hooch. Brown,as mentioned, killed himself in 1978.  Producer Traynor, who died at 77 in 2019, produced a lot of low-budget vehicles in the 1970s such as Death Game with Sondra Locke and Coleen Camp, and was quoted in his Hollywood Reporter obituary as saying “I know there are a lot of people in the movie business who claim they are in it for art’s sake. I’m not. I’m in it to make money for my people. I don’t know who Art is, but I bet he’s awfully hungry by now.”

I doubt Traynor went hungry, but he did believe in his passion ski project enough to accept cost overruns on Brown’s ski action footage, and between this notable footage, the always interesting Ekland, and one of the few recorded performances of the great, troubled Barry Brown, The Ultimate Thrill is and undeniably fascinating example of humpback cinema that hopefully will get a proper re-release on Blu-Ray and maybe some theatrical runs – while it won’t be the days of Thunderball again, crazy, on-location action footage such as presented here should be seen on the big screen, as even a disremembered film like The Ultimate Thrill involved a lot of sweat and passion from those involved.  I think it has earned the title that Traynor proudly bestowed upon it, “The Greatest Ski Movie Ever Made.”  Downhill Racer might be better, all right, but let’s just say The Ultimate Thrill is in the arena. I agree, Peter, Movies are the greatest art film (or at least they were when you produced this), and I appreciate your ambitious efforts on this project… even if it ain’t no French Connection on skis.

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