PBS documents 10th Mountain Division
VAIL It’s relatively common to see license plates in the Vail Valley emblazoned with the iconic red swords-and-skis Army 10th Mountain Division insignia, but the documentary “The Last Ridge” defines what that logo actually means: Soldiers everywhere during World War II faced unimaginable hardships and intense combat – but the 10th Mountain Division often faced it while ascending near vertical slopes behind enemy lines in subzero temperatures.”Everybody thinks of extreme sportsmen as the ultimate daredevils, but extreme sports has nothing on the 10th,” says Abbie Kealy, producer-director of “The Last Ridge.” “They invented extreme sports. I can’t believe they survived this, especially when often the training was worse than the battle.”Kealy, a Maryland-based filmmaker who regularly shoots programs for PBS, became interested in telling the story of how the 10th turned the tide in the mountains of Italy for personal reasons.”My uncle was in the original 10th and he was killed in action,” she says. “I started this film because I had his letters and diaries and stuff. I’ve known the story ever since I could stand up.”Kealy campaigned to finance the $300,000 picture by herself, and she spent three winters shooting in Colorado, Italy and Afghanistan. Filming included interviews with over 100 10th Mountain Division veterans and two dozen current members serving in Afghanistan, and extensive combat reenactments on the actual battlefield of Riva Ridge in Italy.”We were shooting reenactments of this horrendous maneuver, and we were out in sub-zero temps,” she says. “(The castmembers) were freezing, falling down in five feet of powder, and it was really effective. We didn’t even have to try to make it realistic; the vets we had on hand for authenticity told us it really was that way.”
To bring the story full-circle, Kealy went as an embedded journalist with modern 10th soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, and the bonds between past 10th soldiers and current members serving cut through generations.”Some of them (in Afghanistan) seem like the same guys reincarnated – it’s kind of spooky,” she says. “You could start a sentence with one generation and end it with the new guys, and vice versa. They are cut out of the same cloth, and they are tremendously tough. They realize they have different tools and technology, and they wan to make their own mark and establish their own legend, but they’ll do anything for the old guys. “Kealy managed to use current 10th soldiers as her actors for the reenacted battle sequences, and she found that most of them were steeped in the legend and history of “being 10th.””They have a strong sense of identity wrapped up in being 10th – there’s a huge sense of pride, and they all knew the history forward and backwards,” Kealy says. “One guy who was in my van started crying. He was 25 and tough as nails, but he said, ‘I can’t believe we’re going to the battle site where so-and-so was killed. He was the only 10th member to win the Medal of Honor, and I’m going to reenact his death.’ He had memorized this soldier’s commendation, like a poem, and he was really touched.”
In Colorado, Kealy shot around Vail, Pando and Leadville up to altitudes of nearly 13,000 feet, in the same conditions the 10th trained in. Bob Parker, a 10th vet who was involved in Vail’s early development, re-climbed Riva Ridge in Italy at the age of 81.”That was so amazing,” Kealy says. ” It’s definitely the coolest. The people are so special – people involved with the 10th tend to be tremendous people. Maybe we just attracted stellar people, but we couldn’t have been luckier.”Kealy also spent countless hours combing through the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to find bits of film, letters, photos and any other materials that could lend authenticity to “The Last Ridge.””I went and found footage of the Germans fighting as well,” she says. “A lot of times you don’t see the enemies, but I wanted this to be different. I made sure the viewers had some sense of what the 10th was truly facing.”Along the way, Kealy even learned some new tidbits about her uncle killed-in-action, Stuart Abbott, from advisor Bill “Sarge” Brown, who was First Seargent of Abbott’s platoon.”I don’t think he was cut out to be a soldier,” Kealy says. “He was a nature lover and enjoyed being outdoors, and his diary entries always seem to be about what he saw in the leaves or the dirt. Sarge complained that he was always looking at twigs and berries, and he even called him a ‘treehugger.’ I got a laugh out of that.”Viewers of “The Last Ridge” will notice several references that pop up in our own area, from Camp Hale to the ski run Riva Ridge to the skiing soldier in the Vail Village looming over the bridge with his crossed skis. The film gives these names and places even more reverence through the weight of their incredible history on display in the film.”The 10th always brings a tremendous reaction,” Kealy says. “Either it resonates (with audiences) because they remember the time, or becaused they’re amazed these guys could pull it off.”
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