The Call of the Wild (2020)

The Call of the Wild 2020

He was beaten but he was not broken. It’s the 1890s. Buck is a big-hearted St Bernard/collie mix whose blissful domestic life in Santa Clara, California, at the home of an indulgent small town judge (Bradley Whitford) gets turned upside down when he is suddenly uprooted by a thief and transplanted to the exotic wilds of the Alaskan Yukon during the Gold Rush. As the newest addition to a mail-delivery dog sled team led by Perrault (Omar Sy) and his wife Françoise (Cara Gee), Buck has to learn to toe the line behind alpha male Spitz but then he bests him and becomes leader of the pack, heeding the call of the wild that intervenes to periodically remind him of his canine forebears. When the team is sold with the advent of the telegraph the team is acquired by nasty adventurer Hal (Dan Stevens) who is about to kill Buck when the dog is rescued by grizzled old John Thornton (Harrison Ford). John is drinking heavily to get away from his own family home – he has left his wife following the death of their son and decided to follow the boy’s dream to depart from chartered territory and find his heart’s desire where X marks the spot. Buck and his new master are true friends and battle the natural elements where Buck becomes his true self in the wild until Hal seeks revenge … This is not the south lands. Michael Green’s adaptation of the 1903 Jack London wilderness classic takes some liberties and makes some changes, presumably for reasons of political correctness, ensuring a direct hit on kids’ sensibilities without the fear factor or the race aspect. The shortcuts and alterations minimise the human cruelty, probably a good thing. The first five minutes are hard to watch, as though shot at double speed and played back fractionally slower (Hobbit-like), but then the physicality of the film slows down to set up the story, again a little differently from the book. Tactile Buck may be but his actions were laid down by renowned actor and gymnast Terry Notary and then he was magicked into life by CGI:  in an interview Ford said the scale and scope of the film could not have been achieved otherwise. And who would want any animal put through their paces as these sled dogs are? The titular call is actualised in the image of an ancient black dog who appears ghostlike every so often but it is a clear representation of Buck’s personal growth, a sign that he is becoming his true wild self. And as he does,  John and Buck save each other. The end is of course tragic in part but Buck reaches his destiny, in the wild. It’s a rather brilliant fable and very well told. That lump in your throat is definitely not a special effect. Directed by Chris Sanders.

Jet Pilot (1957)

Jet Pilot

I’m a refugee, not a traitor. During the Cold War, a Russian jet enters air space over Alaska and is escorted to an American air base. The pilot turns out to be a woman – Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh). She claims to be defecting and demands asylum but refuses to provide information on Soviet activities. USAF Colonel Jim Shannon (John Wayne) receives orders to befriend her in order to win her confidence and gather information. The pilots compete with each other but gradually fall in love. When it appears Anna may be deported, Jim marries her – only to discover that she may be a spy and his mission to seduce her may have played right into her hands This might be some new form of Russian propaganda. Shot between 1949 and 1951 by a likely uninterested auteur Josef Von Sternberg, producer Howard Hughes was basically reworking Hell’s Angels and spent a staggering seven years messing about with the edit before unleashing it upon an unsuspecting world. Despite its terrible reputation it’s mostly played for laughs with a first indication when sound effects literally trumpet Leigh’s stripping off her commie uniform. Naturally a woman that beautiful can’t be trusted, so the inevitable honeytrap is set. This is meat and drink to writer Jules Furthman and it’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek with the bonus of some incredible aerobatic cinematography from Winton C. Hoch. My favourite line? The one that provides a running joke and hints at a more lauded Leigh film a decade later:  Do you stuff birds too? A total hoot.

The Spoilers (1942)

The Spoilers.jpg

A woman doesn’t run out on the man she loves, she sticks with him through thick and thin. It’s 1900 and Flapjack (Russell Simpson) and Banty (George Cleveland) arrive in Nome, Alaska to check up on their claim to a gold mine. Saloon owner Charry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) knows that Bennett (Forrest Taylor) and Clark (Ray Bennett) are plotting to steal their claim. The new gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) is part of the corrupt scheme as is the territory’s judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds) whose niece Helen (Margaret Lindsay) has a thing for Cherry’s old flame Roy Glennister (John Wayne), fresh from a trip to Europe. Roy makes the mistake of siding with McNamara which damages his relationship with longtime partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey).  Roy realizes he’s been deceived as McNamara and Stillman prepare to steal at least $250,000 while the mine’s case awaits appeal. Helen is now in love with Roy, who begs Dextry’s forgiveness and persuades him to rob a bank to take back the wealth stolen from them. Both Glennister and Dextry don black faces to disguise themselves during the heist. The Bronco Kid (Richard Barthelmess) kills the sheriff but Roy gets the blame. He is arrested and a plot forms to kill him – permitting him to escape then murdering him on the street – but Cherry comes to his rescue, breaking Roy out of jail. A spectacular train derailment occurs during his fight for freedom. Then a fierce fistfight with McNamara results in Roy getting back his mine and his girl. A great starry cast play brilliantly off one another in this spirited adaptation of the novel by Rex Beach, adapted by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed. The tone is set from the start with a shootout in this muddy town and Dietrich beats a path to the dock to greet old love Wayne. She doesn’t sing but wears several sparkly numbers in this monochrome delight. Her byplay with romantic rival Lindsay is a wonderful contrast in performing styles and her scenes with Wayne positively crackle The frequent references to Robert Service’s works are done with a nod and a wink to his own appearance as The Poet. Directed by Ray Enright who brings everything to a rousing conclusion with one of the longest fistfights ever filmed – and it’s all over the saloon! Wonderful fun.

North to Alaska (1960)

North to Alaska poster

Such a fun-filled, rumbustious comedy western must have had a great concept – but it didn’t, other than being a Wayne vehicle in Alaska, the newest state and vaguely based on a play called Birthday Gift. There was no script. The first director didn’t like the choice of Capucine as Angel, the prostitute, declaring her unsexy – he didn’t know she was shacking up with Charles Feldman, the producer. So Henry Hathaway came on board. And they started shooting this adventure about prospectors George (John Wayne) and Sam (Stewart Granger) who strike it rich but need to steer clear of conman Frankie (Ernie Kovacs) and keep Sam’s kid brother Billy (Fabian) on the straight and narrow. When Sam’s fiancee in Seattle proves to have married someone else, George brings back Angel and her relationships with each of the men reveals something of each of their characters in the midst of their efforts to keep the gold haul for themselves. For a script written mostly on the hoof by old-timers John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin, Claude Binyon, Wendell Mayes and Ben Hecht, with contributions by Feldman, it works like a dream, with a tongue in cheek touch that more prepared productions should envy. The song was a huge hit and made the film even more popular. Proper entertainment.