North to Alaska: John Wayne at his romantic-comic best in this rollicking Western adventure

North to Alaska(1960), directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne, Stewart Granger and Capucine in lead roles, is a highly enjoyable comic-Western set in turn-of -the-century Alaska, and showcases Wayne’s talents for comedy and romance to the fullest.

Big Sam left Seattle in the year of ninety-two
With George Pratt his partner and brother Billy too
They crossed the Yukon river and they found the bonanza gold
Below that old white mountain
Just a little south-east of Nome
Sam crossed the Majestic mountains to the valleys far below
He talked to his team of huskies
As he mushed on through the snow
With the northen lights a-runnin’ wild
In the land of the midnight sun
Yes Sam McCord was a mighty man
In the year of nineteen-one

Where the river is windin’ big nuggets they’re findin’
North to Alaska go north the rush is on
North to Alaska go north the rush is on

George turns to Sam with his gold in his hand
Said Sam you’re lookin’ at a lonely lonely man
I’d trade all the gold that’s buried in this land
For one…

As the insanely catchy title song by Johnny Horton pounds away on the soundtrack, and beautiful paintings of Alaskan landscape unveils on screen, we are promised that we are in for an entertaining ride, filled with fun and adventure, thrills and romance, and comedy and comradery; and the best part about Henry Hathaway’s North to Alaska (1960) is that, not only it delivers on these initial promises, but it goes beyond that to give us something more. We expect a typical John Wayne action-adventure Western- with gunfights, barroom-brawls, mud-fights and male bonding- set in the backdrop of the Alaskan gold rush, which the film definitely is, but we also get a charming romantic comedy as the centerpiece of the film; we also get sumptuous production design and astoundingly beautiful photography, thanks to Twentieth Century-Fox studio’s in-house camera wizard, Leon Shamroy, who has shot some of the most visually resplendent movies in the studio’s history, from Leave her to Heaven to Cleopatra to Planet of the Apes. But most importantly, we get John ‘Duke’ Wayne at his most charming and romantic-comic best.

Duke has excelled in romantic moments before: think of his courting of Claire Trevor in Stagecoach(1939), Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man and Geraldine Page in Hondo(1953); he has also proved his comic timing by then, but in those films, this aspect of Duke’s talent was just a small part of the overall character, here, it’s at the front and center of it. He’s still tough, courageous and resourceful as he has been in any other Westerns or adventure films, but he’s also very funny and adorable here. In fact, he’s the most adorable he has ever been in any film. This is the most ‘Cary Grant’ role that Duke has ever played, and he’s very good in it. A lot of the humor is broad and slapstick, but it suits the film, as it doesn’t takes itself seriously at all. It’s not a great film by any means, but it’s perhaps the most entertaining film Duke has ever made, at least for me, it’s definitely in the top three. The film also set the template for the John Wayne Westerns that will follow in the next decade and half. And to think that this was a film that was started without a script or even a director.

At the time when this film was conceived, Duke was neck deep in the production of his dream project, The Alamo(1960). Duke was producing, directing and acting in this massively budgeted $12 million dollar epic, which he has been planning for 15 years, and in which he has sunk his personal fortunes. Obviously, Duke was under extraordinary pressure and much in need of money. It was then that his agent, Charles K. Feldman, negotiated a deal at Fox for Duke to star in this film. All they had was the title and nothing else. Anyway, Duke was too preoccupied with The Alamo to demand to see a script. If he had, they had nothing to show him. The first director attached to the film was Richard Fleisher, who has made some great adventure films with Kirk Douglas, like 20,000 leagues under the sea and The Vikings. But as the shooting date approached, the script was still not in any shape to shoot. All that the script writers know was that this was about gold prospecting in Alaska. Alaska was admitted to the Union as the 49th state in 1959 and was much in the news at the time, and the filmmakers intention was to capitalize on that. But the story was never fully worked out, and Fleisher, after waiting around for a long time, got nervous and quit the picture. This move would cost him heavily later: though his quitting had nothing to do with Duke, Duke was misinformed that Fleischer had quit on account of him, and Duke would later veto Fleisher as a director when he was to be hired for directing Rooster Cogburn. After Fleischer quit, Henry Hathaway was hired as a director; he had already directed Duke in a few pictures and had a good working relationship with him. The chief script writers on the film where Marty Rackin and John Mahin, who had earlier written The Horse Soldiers for Duke. The script was based on the 1939 play, Birthday Gift, by Ladislas Fodor. But even after throwing in three more script writers, including the legendary screenwriter, Ben Hecht, the script was not finished before the shooting started. In the end, Hathaway and the cast improvised much of the film on location. This is very obvious from the disjointed, episodic nature of the film. But the improvised nature of the film also provides the film with energy, vitality and spontaneity, to the point that one forgets the half-baked script. The plot of the film is of not much importance; it’s pretty illogical and downright silly. It’s the interplay between the actors and the overall exuberant, colorful, feel-good quality of the film that’s the chief attraction.

North to Alaska begins with a big, rambunctious, cartoonish brawl in a hotel saloon and ends with a big, rambunctious, cartoonish brawl in the muddy streets just in front of the same hotel. And the brawls are broad and slapstick in the form of a Tom & Jerry cartoon, with goofy sounds like “twang” and “bang” to go with every punch and every fall. From this alone you can get an idea about what kind of film this is. The year is 1901, in Nome, Alaska, and as the title song describes vividly, Sam McCord(John Wayne), his pal, George Pratt(Stewart Granger), and his brother, Billy (Fabian), who had left Seattle in 1892 for Alaska, had hit it big; they have discovered gold while panning on their claim, and now they are rich. Sam is soon leaving for Seattle to purchase some mining equipment, and George tasks him with finding and bringing back his fiancée, Jenny Lamont. Sam is not comfortable with this idea; he’s a man who values his freedom, and is strongly opposed to marriage; as he puts it: “a wonderful thing about Alaska is that matrimony hasn’t hit up here yet. Let’s keep it a free country!“. But, seeing that George is truly love-sick, he reluctantly agrees to bring Jenny back on the boat with him. This opening section nicely sets up the film’s geography, its lighthearted tone and the main characters of the plot- which includes Frankie Canon (Ernie Kovacs), a recently arrived conman, who runs into Sam in town and attempts to swindle him out of some of his money before he leaves. Canon is the nominal villain of the piece, he is more buffoonish than villainous, keeping with the tone of the film; someone existing mainly to be punched out by Duke at regular intervals. Interestingly, the first meeting between Sam and Canon takes place in an authentically recreated Russian bath, where we get to see Duke in one of his rare ‘semi-nude’ appearances’ showing off his barrel like chest. It’s fun to see Duke massaging himself with ‘the Venik‘, a bundle of small leafy branches. Cannon’s attempt at fleecing Sam out of some money using a forged ring goes bad, and he ends up at the receiving end of Sam’s fist. We wont get to see Cannon for a while after this.

Sam soon leaves for Seattle, and he manages to tracks down Jenny there, but he’s shocked to find that she’s already married. On his visit to a local whorehouse, respectfully referred to as a ‘Henhouse’, Sam runs into a French girl, Michelle Bonet AKa “Angel”. He feels that Angel will be a good substitute for Jenny, and decides to take her back to George. At the ‘henhouse’ he also runs into an old logger pal of his, who invites him to a ‘reunion picnic’. Sam takes Angel along with him to the picnic, but he face resistance to her presence from the loggers’ wives. When he threatens to walk out with her, they relent and invite her to stay. The colorfully staged picnic sequence becomes an extremely entertaining extended episode in its own right: brimming with colorful costumes, characters, sets and set-pieces, the scene finds Angel falling head over heels in love with Sam, who treats her like a lady and protects her honor by standing up for her, and fighting off advances from amorous admirers. The sequence also involves a delightful ‘pole-climbing’ contest, in which Sam, who hasn’t climbed a pole in a decade, takes part and wins. The sequence ends with a lengthy, drunken-dinner scene, where everyone toasts everyone else, and then passes out. Sam is the last one to pass out, and as Angel is tending to him, she discovers the two tickets for Nome he has in his pocket. Thinking that Sam has fallen in love with her and intends to take her along with him, an overjoyed Angel gets herself and an unconscious Sam on aboard the boat to Nome. This whole ‘Seattle’ set sequence works like a giant set-piece within the film; it doesn’t move the plot forward in anyway, but it adheres to director Howard Hawks’ philosophy that sometimes you don’t need bother with the plot, you only need good, enjoyable scenes; and we do get a series of very enjoyable scenes here. The episode also finds Duke at his most charming- whether enjoying himself surrounded by half-naked girls in the Henhouse: he pays them all at the end for showing their legs; or bonding with Angel at the picnic, he’s tops.

By the time Sam wakes up, they’re already on their way to Nome. Sam’s surprised to see Angel with him in the boat, and he clears her misunderstanding regarding the whole situation, by telling her that she intended her for George and not for himself. Eventually, he had realized the stupidity of his idea and had decided not to take her with him. Angel is heartbroken, as Sam suggests that she return to Seattle immediately. but she disembarks at Nome, and plans to stay at the hotel until the return boat arrives.  Sam is surprised to see that the hotel is now owned by Canon; he had managed to swindle the old owner out of the property in a game of cards. It’s also revealed that Canon and Angel were lovers in their past lives, and now Canon intends to renew the relationship, much to Angel’s chagrin. Causing further heartache for Angel, Sam bids goodbye to her, as he prepares to leave for his homestead in the valley; he comes to town only once in six months. Realizing that if she let Sam go, she’s doomed to be with the disgusting Canon, and suspecting that the tough, stubborn, anti-wife, Sam has developed feelings for her that he’s trying hard to hide, Angel stages a fake fight, storms out of the hotel, and jumps into Sam’s carriage, forcing him to take her with him to the homestead where he and the Pratts live. Upon arriving at the homestead, Sam comes to know from Billy that George has gone out to help a neighbors battle some claim-jumpers. Leaving Angel in the care of 17 year old Billy, Sam rides off to fetch George. Here, we get the only major ‘Western’ style action sequence in the film; with horses, gunfights, fistfights, crashing carriages et al, as Sam helps George and others fight off the claim jumpers. Finally, the moment has arrived for Sam to deliver the dreadful news to George, and the scene is staged as a humorous continuation to the action sequence that just preceded it; standing underneath a temporary ‘waterfall’ created by a broken pipe, Sam informs George that Jenny is married, and also tells him about Angel, who’s now staying in his cabin. At first, George cant make out what Sam is saying, and he believes that Sam was successful in his ‘Seattle’ mission and Jenny is waiting for him at the cabin, but when the truth dawns on him, a heartbroken George punches Sam out and walks away. Later when they reach their cabin, he rejects Angel outright and ask her to leave, but after spending some time talking to her, George takes a liking to her and is willing to marry her. But Angel is in love with Sam, and she confesses that much to George; that’s when George realizes that Sam has been acting strange lately because he is also in love with Angel, but the stubborn fellow will not reveal his true feelings.

To bring Sam out of his shell, George concocts an elaborate ruse; he spends the night in the “honeymoon cabin” pretending that he and Angel are madly in love. He’s sure this will incite Sam’s jealousy to the point that he will admit his love for Angel. Unfortunately, the plan backfires, as Sam gets increasingly frustrated, and come morning, he decides he’s had enough and prepares to leave. This whole situation is complicated by Billy, who has also fallen hard for Angel, and increases Sam’s frustration at every turn with his ‘jealous lover’ act. This whole ‘comic episode’ that lasts for almost 15 minutes is the high watermark of the film; it’s one of the longest instances of sustained comedy you’ll get to see, with Duke at his very comic best. His facial expressions and body language in these scenes are alone worth seeing the movie. It’s often forgotten what a good comedy actor John Wayne can be. His American icon status, and the Western genre he’s most identified with, tends to keep his comedy talents from being discovered by the general audience. It’s more than apparent that this whole sequence was pretty much improvised on the spot, and Hathaway should be commended for noticing a good thing and sustaining it as long as he can.

Even as all this is going on, Frank Canon is upto his old tricks- he’s got an illiterate drunk to file a counter claim to Sam & George’s claim, thereby freezing their gold mining activities. This means that Sam is stuck with George at this moment; he cannot leave with his share as he planned. When Soldiers arrive to close down the mine and confiscate the gold, Sam resists, leading to his arrest. Sam and the Pratts are taken into the town, and Angel also follows them, planning to leave for Seattle. In town, Sam discovers the drunk who had counter filed against their claim and realizes that Canon is behind the con. Now, the stage is set for the all-out climactic brawl on the muddy streets of the town, in which, Sam and George punches out Canon and his goons. Canon’s dubious plans are exposed to the authorities, and thus, the claim is restored to its rightful owners, Sam and George. Also, after much prodding from everyone, Sam confesses his love for Angel, and brings the curtain down on this rollicking Alaskan adventure.

Apart from Duke, the other cast member who distinguishes herself is Capucine. The beautiful actress was not well known at the time, and was cast in the film because she was Charles Feldman’s mistress. She plays Angel with a mix of lustful abandon and light comedy. But she and Duke couldn’t hit it off while shooting and their lack of chemistry shows. Also, I do wish an A-list star-actress like Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr or Audrey Hepburn was cast in that role. For once, It would have been great to see a really top tier actress play opposite Duke. Except for Maureen O’Hara, we have hardly seen him do it, and this film provided that opportunity. It’s too bad they didn’t capitalize on it. British film actor, Stewart Granger, is quite an odd co-star for Duke. He had made mainly adventure films and swashbucklers, and he comes across as trying too hard and “too eager to please” in the comic routines. In his memoirs, Granger wrote that he was always grateful to John Wayne who got him cast in the role. Granger had just left MGM and was desperate for work. This would prove to be his last Hollywood film. He would soon take off for Europe where he would star in Biblical epics and spaghetti westerns. The casting of Fabian as Billy was a shrewd marketing tactic on Duke’s part. Starting with Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, he always had a current teenage idol in his films to woo a younger audience. And i wish there was more of Ernie Kovacs in the film, his comic talents are rather wasted in a barely there role.

North to Alaska was released just a month after the release of The Alamo; when Duke was taking heat from all quarters for his maiden directorial venture, with critics dismissing it as a vanity project to showcase his politics. The industry was also hostile to the film, with people like Fox studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck criticizing Duke for turning into a one-man corporation. The middling box office of the film against its huge cost was also putting a question mark over Duke’s commercial bankability. To add to Duke’s miseries, his business manager had swindled him out of his life’s earnings through bad investments, leaving him penniless after almost 30 years in the movie business. This is apart from the all the money he has sunk in the production of The Alamo, from which he never made a dime. He had made some bad deals to get his dream project made, and the result was that, despite the film making a lot of money, everybody else, but him, profited from the venture. All in all, it was a really bad time for Duke.

That’s when North to Alaska arrived in theaters, and proved to be a huge success; even surpassing The Alamo in box office collections, and it cost only one fourth of what The Alamo had cost. The film reestablished Duke as a box office powerhouse, but the irony of it all must have tasted bitter for Duke: The Alamo was film that he’s been passionately planning for 15 years; a story that he totally believed in; into which he had sunk much of his personal fortunes, and had slaved relentlessly in miserable conditions for a whole year, doing triple duty as producer, director and actor, and when it’s released it only yields more misery, while here’s North to Alaska, which was cobbled together purely as a business deal, without a script or director, which was shot in chaotic conditions with no order or planning, with most of the film being made up as they went along; and that film becomes a huge success. I feel that the contrasting destinies of these two films heavily influenced Duke in his future film choices. Looks like he had decided that from here on, there will be no more ambitious, expensive epics like The Alamo, it’s going to be full on, lightweight entertainers in the mold of North to Alaska that mixes action and comedy in a Western setting. He would still do the odd The Man who Shot Liberty Valance and True Grit for directors he trusted, but otherwise, “Alaska” is the way to go. You can find the influence of this film on most of the films he made the rest of his career, like McLintock!,The War Wagon, Big Jake, etc.; though i felt the humor became broader and broader as the films went on, and Duke was getting older, fatter and less nimbler. North to Alaska struck the right tone, and it caught Duke at the right moment in his life and career. The film continues to be one of the most entertaining John Wayne films ever made.

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