North to Alaska (1960)

Film review: North to Alaska (1960), directed by Henry Hathaway

If you grow up in a family where your father is a big John Wayne fan, and who has a distinct liking of Western movies, odds are you’ll have come across this film at some point. Yes, it stars John Wayne and yes, it’s a Western. What might have you stop and say, “wait, WHAT?!” is the fact that this is not your average Western. It’s a romantic comedy. Yeah, that’s right, pardner, a romcom.

It’s Nome, Alaska, in the year 1900. Confirmed bachelor Sam McCord (John Wayne) and his friend George Pratt (Stewart Granger, very handsome) have a goldmine together with George’s little brother Billy (Fabian, or Fabian Anthony Forte before he was snatched from Humble Beginnings and got a record deal). For the past three years, George has pined after his beloved fiancée Jenny, and when the mine finally strikes it big, she can finally be fetched from Seattle to come and live in Alaska.

While finishing the honeymoon cottage for the two of them, his friend Sam travels to Seattle to fetch the bride … only to find out she didn’t wait – she’s already married someone else. Disappointed, Sam does what he knows best: goes to a saloon to drown his sorrows. One of the ladies of the establishment is French, and maybe she could agree to travel to Alaska in Jenny’s stead? The beautiful Michelle “Angel” Bonet (Capucine, or Germain Lefebvre as she was before she was discovered by a modeling agent in her native France) agrees to go with him, but perhaps she got slightly more than she bargained for …

The first second thing I was struck by (the first being the catchy theme song, North To Alaska by Johnny Horton) was the image quality. It looked really good. It may have been digitally restored or something, because the full colour glory of this is magnificent for a film that’s released over 50 years ago. The only downside were the northern lights, which looked like they came straight out of the animation studio.

Another thing were the out-drawn fight scenes that were more cartoony than convincing. And the “lookit me, I’m a teenage heart-throb singer thrown in to draw a crowd” … On the plus side, Ernie Kovacs as slimeball Frankie Canon is delightfully sleazy. Think you know a creep when you see the thin moustache? You’re not wrong!

Another plus is the Swedish. There are the Nordquist couple, and at least the man has a fairly convincing accent, but then again, apparently the actor is of Swedish descent. You can clearly hear both “Skål!” and “Skål på dig!” (both mean “cheers”) and they actually sound Swedish. Then there’s a man lying drunk on the ground singing bits of a drinking song, “Helan går”. It’s just nice to hear a bit of my native language in a foreign film, you know? At least when they do it well.

Seeing John Wayne as a love interest is … well, interesting. Wouldn’t be my first choice, but he’s well paired with Capucine and they make a good on-screen couple. It’s not the best film in the world, but it’s amusing and definitely has its charms, even fifty years after it first came out.

3 out of 5 disputed goldmine claims.

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