When it debuted in August 1941, the movie “Sun Valley Serenade” hit theaters as war fervor was building to a crescendo in America.
The light musical comedy helped establish international fame for the nascent Sun Valley Resort, as the scenes of stars Sonja Henie and John Payne swooping down the slopes of Bald Mountain made skiing appealing to scores of new visitors.
The plot is so sweet and simple it’s saccharine, but the wartime motif and context is undeniable. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II occurred just a few months after its debut, and Henie’s character is a refugee from Norway. The cinematic escape to Sun Valley offered U.S. citizens a reprieve from the headlines and newsreel footage of the deepening conflict in Europe and Asia.
“Sun Valley Serenade’s” legacy in World War II runs deeper than that. It involves the Army’s famous 10th Mountain Division, whose soldiers fought against the German army in the mountains of Italy in 1945.
At the behest of 20th Century Fox founder Darryl Zanuck, Otto Lang, director of the Sun Valley Ski School, orchestrated the filming of the masterful downhill skiing scenes in “Sun Valley Serenade.”
In the movie, Henie and Payne race down Bald Mountain, though in the action scenes Lang substituted himself for Payne and Gretchen Fraser, later an Olympic gold medalist in downhill skiing, for Henie.
Lang was able to apply the film techniques he honed in Sun Valley to a training film used for the 10th Mountain Division.
Early in 1942, as American troops were beginning to fight in the Pacific theater and in North Africa, Zanuck recruited Lang to direct the footage for the film, which was called “The Basic Principles of Skiing.”
Lang filmed the skiing techniques on location in Idaho, according to author Peter Shelton and his book, “Climb to Conquer: The Untold Story of WWII’s 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops.”
“Lang had teams of men and toboggans to haul his 35 millimeter cameras to the summits,” Shelton wrote. “He shot in slow motion and from astonishing angles above and below the skiers. He insisted on shooting every scene in trackless snow. … The film is a primer on the Arlberg technique, the one Lang had mastered in St. Anton at the knee of its inventor, Hannes Schneider. From the humble snowplow to sweeping, high-speed christies, Lang and his synchronous skiers made every movement look beautiful.”
The training film circulated widely, and Hollywood was captivated by the 10th Mountain Division.
While training in Washington and Colorado, the soldiers learned how to ski, snowshoe, scale steep slopes, build snow caves and master other survival and high-altitude fighting techniques.
The division deployed in the Apennine Mountains in Italy in early 1945, and led a series of attacks on German positions high in the mountains in some of the most severe conditions in World War II. Returning home after the war, veterans from the 10th Mountain Division helped promote the ski industry in America.
As the song goes, “It happened in Sun Valley, not so very long ago.”