Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Piz Gloria

During the filming of Dr. No in 1962, Ian Fleming retreats to his Jamaican home to write On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS). Picking up where the previous James Bond novel Thunderball leaves off, in OHMSS Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld assumes the identity of a Bavarian count and retreats to a Swiss mountaintop hideaway named Piz Gloria. Having dramatically altered his appearance, Blofeld works to perfect a poison that could destroy the British agrarian economy.

Six years later producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli work to bring OHMSS to the big screen as the sixth installment in the James Bond film series. For director Peter Hunt, reflecting the gritty realism of the Fleming novels was critical, as the previous film had departed significantly from its source material. Hunt felt that OHMSS should stick to the original Fleming story line, which required a continuity break with the previous film You Only Live Twice (this is why Bond and Blofeld do not recognize each other when first meeting in OHMSS). Hunt also desired to make a movie that more closely resembled the real world, which meant that the use of elaborate sets would be minimized and that OHMSS would be shot on location as much as possible.

Identifying a location to serve as Piz Gloria originally proved difficult, but the producers eventually stumbled upon the construction of an elaborate cableway system through the Swiss Alps that ended at a resolving restaurant under construction on the Schilthorn summit. The location matched Fleming’s description of Blofeld’s mountaintop hideout almost perfectly, and the producers struck a deal in which they would pay for the completion of the restaurant and the construction of a helipad in exchange for exclusive use of the facility during filming. After filming concluded, the name Piz Gloria remained as the cableway and restaurant opened for tourists.

Among the Bond films OHMSS stands as one of my personal favorites. Though some find it cheesy, the film has to be divorced from past and future Bond movies and viewed as a standalone film in its own right. It is a brilliant, epic film, with amazing cinematography, a realistic storyline, fantastic editing, and a score that resonates. Upon realizing several years ago that Piz Gloria was within a few hours journey of Pepperdine’s study abroad center in Lausanne, Switzerland, I promised myself that I would someday visit the location. That visit happened this past Tuesday.

Ultimately, owing to the incredibly bad weather, the visit was somewhat disappointing.

But getting there was an incredible journey. After a two-hour train ride from Lausanne, we ventured into the Alps by bus to Stechelberg where we began our ascent to Piz Gloria via the cableway system. After stops at Gimmelwald, Murren, and the Birg observation station we eventually reached the 2970m Schilthorn summit. The sights along the way were incredible, though our cable car was completely eclipsed by the snowstorm once we ascended above Murren.

Today, Piz Gloria features a restaurant, meeting center, and observation terrace. We enjoyed a very fine meal, one of the best we experienced in Switzerland, and our table circled the entire station in just under one hour. After our meal, we enjoyed the OHMSS exhibits before touring the facility and making comparisons between the way it stands today and the way it appeared in the film.
Though the snowstorm prevented us from viewing the incredible mountain ranges surrounding Piz Gloria, our visit was delightful and we departed late that afternoon to return to Lausanne. As Gail and I descended to the Birg observation station, one thought struck both of us and we turned and said the same thing to each other.

We will return.

Thus, as with all James Bond films, our visit ended with the anticipation of a future adventure, a day when we will once again ascend to Piz Gloria, but this time under the majesty of a clear sky. 

See the photo album of this trip.

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