Saturday 4 July 2020

Movie Review: North To Alaska (1960)

A comedy western, North To Alaska throws a spiky romance into a rough-and-tumble gold rush.

The setting is the rambunctious town of Nome, Alaska during the 1900 gold rush. Logger-turned-prospector Sam McCord (John Wayne), his friend George Pratt (Stewart Granger) and George's younger brother Billy (Fabian) strike gold, while the conniving Frankie Canon (Ernie Kovacs) is slithering around town looking to get rich without working for it. Sam, who harbours strict anti-marriage opinions, heads to Seattle by boat to purchase mining equipment and escort George's fiancee Jenny back to Alaska.

Sam: Ahh, women! I never met one yet that was half as reliable as a horse!

In Seattle Sam finds Jenny, but she is already married and has forgotten about George. At a swanky nightclub Sam spots French hostess Michelle "Angel" Bonet (Capucine) and invites her to Alaska as a replacement wife for George. She starts to fall in love with Sam, and once in Alaska, Billy also gets infatuated with the sophisticated French beauty. Meanwhile Frankie has a history with Angel, while the region descends into lawlessness with competing cross-claims triggering violence.

Featuring no shortage of comic mass brawls, a few perfunctory shoot-outs (but no casualties) and plenty of trudging through the muddy streets of a recreated Nome, North To Alaska does not take itself too seriously. This is a western light, John Wayne happy to poke fun at his persona as his character Sam McCord is pulled, pushed and shoved into admitting he can, indeed, fall in love with a woman.

Sam: George, a wonderful thing about Alaska is that matrimony hasn't hit up here yet. Let's keep it a free country!

And Angel, a classy prostitute in all but name, is sure able to send Nome into a tizzy. George, Billy and Frankie take turns trying to win her attention, but she decides early Sam is the only man for her and alternates strategic seduction with patience to help his heart yield.

About five different writers had a hand in developing the script, and filming started with no clear direction where the story was going. Director Henry Hathaway could have trimmed the 2 hours of running time, and the disjointed scattershot approach to ideas is apparent. Many scenes meander aimlessly and take forever to get nowhere, with minor characters checking in, leaving no impression, and quietly checking out. 

The subplot about cross-claims erupting into violence is haphazardly tossed into the pot, mainly to justify one messy shootout and another comic highlight involving Wayne in a runaway cart. A loggers picnic in Seattle is a long and tiresome distraction, but even worse is an endless sequence between young Billy and Angel, as the 17 year old tries to act older and falls flat on his face (literally and figuratively).

Michelle: Are you going to leave me here alone?
Sam: Make yourself at home. Billy's here.
Michelle: Who's Billy?
Sam: George's little kid brother.
Michelle: How little?
Sam: Seventeen. But he's man enough to take care of you!
Michelle: That's what I'm afraid of!

The cast buys into the sense of fun and hams it up appropriately, Capucine emerging with plenty of credit as a self-confident and playful woman in a hostile environment. Ernie Kovacs is another stand-out as the oily Frankie, and the film would have benefited from giving him more screen time.

North To Alaska eventually gets to its destination, covered in mud but with a smile on its face.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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