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Kill a few people, and you're a murderer. Kill a million, and you're a conqueror. Go figure.
~ Eric Qualen

Eric Qualen is the main antagonist in the 1993 film Cliffhanger. He is a ruthless and psychopathic terrorist who becomes the arch-nemesis of Gabe Walker.

He was portrayed by John Lithgow, who also played Burke in Blow Out, B.Z. in Santa Claus: The Movie, Lord John Whorfin in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Glenn Motch in The Campaign, Carter Nix and Carter Nix, Sr. in Raising Cain, Earl Talbot Blake in Ricochet, Arthur Mitchell in Dexter, Jean-Claude in Rugrats in Paris, Lord Farquaad in Shrek, and Lamar Blackburn in The Accountant.


Qualen holding his Desert Eagle on Hal.

Eric Qualen is a former military intelligence member turned expert thief. He leads a highly skilled band of international thieves who intend to steal $100 million dollars in uncirculated $1,000 bills, initially printed for international banking transactions, from a U.S. Treasury transport plane flying over the isolated Rocky Mountains during a daring midair heist. Qualen succeeds in destroying the Treasury plane, but the cases full of the currency are lost in the mountains and their own plane is forced to make a crash landing. Luckily for them, there are tracking devices in the cases, but because they need expert help locating them in the mountainous terrain, Qualen has his pilot, Kristel call for a rescue helicopter, so they can hijack it, use its mountain ranger to find the money, and get out of the mountains.

Because it is too windy for helicopters to fly, Rocky Mountain Rescue is forced to send troubled Gabe Walker and his disgruntled former friend Hal Tucker into the mountains on foot to escort them out of the mountains, only to be captured by the terrorists, who demand the whereabouts of the helicopter. After using the tracking device to locate the first of the three cases, Qualen takes off Gabe's coat to make sure he comes back to the group. He is tethered to a rope and ordered to scale a steep wall to retrieve it. Knowing that he will be killed once Qualen gets his way, Gabe frees himself from the rope, and the terrorists react by firing up the mountain, causing a landslide which takes one of Qualen's thugs, Heldon. Seeing the money flutter down from the top of the mountain, Qualen presumes Gabe dead and orders the group to proceed to the second case.

Gabe finds the second case before the terrorist group, takes every bill except for one, on which he wrote "Want to trade?". An infuriated Qualen demands the group to split up and find Gabe. Gabe uses his environment to his advantage and begins killing the mercenary, Ryan and burns the money to keep warm when he is safe to. Hal encounters two adolescent friends of his and warns them, but Qualen orders one of his mercenary, Kynette to kill them. Kynette kills one with his MAC-10 submachine gun, but the other gets away by parachuting off a cliff with injuries. While Gabe is busy fighting Kynette in a cave below the terrorists, Qualen plants C4 explosives directly above him. Gabe makes use of the cave's stalagmites and impales Kynette, and Hal manages to break away from the terrorists and use a radio to alert Gabe of the C4; He barely escapes.

Qualen threatening a terrified Krystal moments before killing her.

By now, the winds have died down enough for a rescue helicopter pilot to fly into the mountains. Having not received any response from Gabe or Hal, Rocky Mountain Rescue alert the authorities. Krystal flags down the rescue helicopter and pulls a gun on the pilot, but is stunned when fellow mercenary Delmar shoots and kills the pilot against Qualen's orders. This causes Richard Travers, a turncoat U.S. Treasury agent, to brandish a firearm on Qualen, telling everyone that he is now in charge. Qualen, held at gunpoint, states that without someone to pilot the helicopter (i.e. Qualen), everyone will be stranded on the mountain. After being brought out of gunpoint, Qualen sneakily and calmly draws his Desert Eagle and holds it to Kristel's back, telling her that the meaning of true love is sacrifice, and shoots her dead. Now Qualen is the only one who can fly them off the mountain as he just murdered the only other pilot, the playing field is now equal again, and Travers backs off. Qualen tells Travers, Hal, and the last remaining mercenary, Delmar, to track down the case while he goes off in the rescue helicopter. When they are nearing it, Delmar and Travers attempt to exterminate Hal when he's served his purpose for the terrorists, but instead are killed off by Gabe and Hal. Afterwards, Gabe's love Jessie signals the helicopter - only to discover that Qualen is the pilot.


Meet me at the highest point from where you are. If you don't, we're going to find out if this little angel of yours can fly.
~ Eric Qualen as he preapres to try and escape.

Qualen, with his entire gang perished, has captured Jessie on his helicopter. Communicating by radio, Qualen and Gabe make a deal to exchange Jessie for the money Gabe collected from the third case. Qualen releases Jessie, but Gabe double crosses Qualen by throwing the bag of money into the helicopter's rotors, destroying it. Now enraged after seeing the shredded money, Qualen chases Gabe across the mountaintop in an attempt to kill him with the helicopter, only managing to survive by jumped off the mountaintop and grabbed onto an old steel ladder bolted into the rocks. Gabe takes the helicopter's tow line and attaches it to the ladder so it can't get away, and Hal uses a shotgun to destroy the chopper's rotors. When Gabe thinks he has won, the helicopter begins falling off of the mountain, its weight pulling the ladder out of the rocks and Gabe barely hangs onto the freezing, rusty metal.

The helicopter falls until the helicopter's cable stretches itself out to its full length. Gabe and Qualen fight atop the dangling wreckage and it appears Gabe is in trouble when he receives several punches to the kidney and pulled back in the wreck as the ladder continues to break. Qualen has his arm around Gabe's neck prevent him from escape. Gabe eventually gains the upper hand by biting his wrist causing Qualen screamed in pain and Gabe breaks free as he started punching Qualen's face which caused his face to be bloodied. However, when he sees the helicopter's tow cable beginning to give away under the intense weight of the aircraft, Gabe kicks Qualen in the gut as he gave final words to Qualen: Remember, shithead. Keep your arms and legs in the vehicle... at all times!

With that, Gabe finally kicks a bloodied Qualen back into the helicopter as he jumps off to the cliff as it breaks free from its moorings falling to the rocks thousands of feet below. Now trapped in the falling wreckage, Qualen screams in horror as the wreckage plummets into a gigantic explosion - which all but kills Qualen in the process. With Qualen's death, the murders of Frank and the other victims have all been avenged at last.


Throughout the movie, there are only two things that unify mercenary thugs together: their personal greed for the money they stole, and their fear of Eric Qualen.

Qualen is simply put, more vicious then all the thugs combined. He is a callous, sadistic, cocky, traitorous, and merciless international terrorist who is perfectly willing to kill guiltless people, as well as his own accomplices, in order to get what he wants. He enjoys antagonizing Gabe and making other people suffer. He knows how to bully people, and his own minions, who are also dangerous thugs in their own rights, are deathly afraid of him and try to get on his good side. He is also very egotistical and stingy, as all of his terroristic pursuits are for the sake of satisfying his self-absorbed desires. Because of his military background, Qualen is greatly deceitful and manipulative, capable of using charm, threats, fibs, bargains, or intimidation when he so desires.


  • Richard Travers (Inside Man & Lieutenant)
  • Delmar
  • Kynette
  • Kristel (Helicopter Pilot & Lover)
  • Ryan
  • Heldon
  • Ray
  • Mike



  • Christopher Walken was originally cast as Eric Qualen, but left the production before filming began, so John Lithgow was cast at the last minute.
  • Renny Harlin's first choice to play Eric Qualen was David Bowie.
  • Roxy Music lead singer Bryan Ferry was briefly considered for the role of Eric Qualen.
  • In the original script, Qualen was an ex-East German military intelligence member (possibly The Stasi), however, in the film, if his British accent indicates, he is instead implied to be a former member of either MI-5 or the Secret Intelligence Service.


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