‘Mission Mt. Mangart’ packs the house at Vilar

Kimberly Nicoletti
A large crowd gathered at the VPAC Wednesday for a viewing of Chris Anthony’s new film, “Mission Mt. Mangart”.
Courtesy photo

Wednesday night, Chris Anthony introduced his historical documentary, “Mission Mt. Mangart,” to an energetic, packed house at the Vilar Center.

Denver-based blues vocalist Erica Brown set the stage for Anthony’s tribute to the 10th Mountain Division with her soul-stirring rendition of the National Anthem and “America the Beautiful.” Her visceral performance led to a few tears, particularly her own, as she quickly paused to wipe them away. When she sings patriotic songs, she says she strives to bring everyone together as an American, and the extended standing ovation Wednesday proved she did just that.

Movie poster for “Mission Mt. Mangart”
Courtesy photo

In following the film’s patriotic spirit, Anthony also saluted veterans that night, asking them to stand, and later thanking descendants of the 10th Mountain Division who were present and have supported his project. Overall, the atmosphere at the Vilar was one of community, support and pride for our American heroes.

The ‘Mission’ begins

Anthony’s intrigue in the 10th Mountain Division was heightened after frequenting a bar and family hotel in Italy — owned by Vail local Marco Tonazzi — that prominently highlighted the outfit. Anthony eventually gained access to a manuscript about the 10th Mountain Division’s role in protecting the Italian border from invading Yugolslavians.

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A watercolor on the front of the manuscript showed a large tear, which actually ripped apart during battle; enemy fire hit a 10th Mountain Division soldier’s backpack, which held his painting. But even more intriguing was the question: Why was the 10th Mountain Division still active near the Italian/Yugoslavian border three weeks after Hitler’s defeat?

As it turns out, the 10th’s mission didn’t end with Hitler. They helped push the Yugoslavian Army back from Italy’s border and then held the line as peacekeepers. While stationed there, skier-soldiers looked up at the Julian Alps — specifically, Mt. Mangart — and decided to hold a ski race on the western face.

“Mission Mt. Mangart” begins with Anthony on Mt. Mangart introducing the story, then delves into the history of the 10th Mountain Division, with interviews from two veterans who live in California. It reviews the recruitment, training and battles of the troops in an artistic, informative and engaging manner.

The story unfolds

While “Mission Mt. Mangart” recounts how the 10th Mountain Division successfully captured Riva Ridge, which allowed Allied forces to break through German defenses in the seemingly impenetrable Apennine Mountains, it also recalls the deaths of 10th Mountain soldiers who drowned crossing Lake Garda in a DUKW (amphibious military vehicle) on April 29, 1945.

The 70-minute documentary goes well beyond the heroic acts of the 10th, revealing little-known history behind the division.

Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin talks about one woman’s role in recruiting the first soldiers into the division: Deborah Bankart, a well-known skier who became the pretty and perky face of the effort.

Anthony didn’t solely rely on historical photos, videos (one of which highlights the spirit of training at Camp Hale with a rather humorous narration) and interviews for the film. He actually recreated the race on Mt. Mangart in 2017.

The original race involved 500 soldiers, 76 of whom raced on skis that they had captured from German troops. Only 25 skiers made it to the finish, on rutted and rough snow in 1945.

When Anthony recreated the race on the same face with vintage wooden skis (and skiers wearing 10th Mountain uniforms), the snow was “horrible, dangerous, and those skis just don’t turn,” he said during Wednesday night’s Q&A following the screening. Nevertheless, it’s a brilliant re-enactment of the race, showing just how hard skiers had to steer and shove their bodies into the turns to maneuver around bamboo gates.

A journey of fate

Anthony talks about his six-year project, which ultimately turned into “Mission Mt. Mangart,” as fate. Granted, it took plenty of work, but certain elements just fell into place.

To begin with, Slovenian government and military organizations and NATO welcomed him with open arms, granting him easy access to everything from historical records to forest service access (for the Mt. Mangart race). Then, the day before he was leaving, he ran into a guide he had skied with on a Warren Miller film about 20 years ago and mentioned he could use a helicopter to obtain the final shot for the movie. The guide made a call, and they left the next day, without as much as signing a contract.

Once Anthony completed the film, good things continued to flow: In April, “Mission Mt. Mangart” won best historical film at the Cannes World Film Festival. Meanwhile, Anthony used his connections to pitch a live performance of the documentary’s original score (which he and composer Carlo Nicolau created) to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. It was a longshot, but it just so happened that the symphony had just obtained a huge screen and was looking for opportunities to incorporate video. In honor of Veteran’s Day, “Mission Mt. Mangart” premiered in Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall, accompanied with live music by the Colorado Symphony.

And, the fortunate ripple effect doesn’t end there. The majority of proceeds raised screening the film benefits the Chris Anthony Youth Project, which provides experiential education, classroom mentors, financial support and other educational resources that enhance classroom experiences.

Though large companies like Delta Airlines have offered to play the film on flights, Anthony is offering his documentary to ski clubs and other nonprofits, as a fundraising opportunity. During the Q&A, he said he didn’t want to oversaturate viewing opportunities before small groups have a chance to benefit from the screenings. He ultimately envisions the film in museums and schools, and possibly online platforms like Netflix.


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