There are some evenings when I feel like just sitting back and watching the Duke. I don’t mean masterpieces like “Stagecoach” (1939), “Red River” (1948) or “The Searchers” (1956). As magnificent as those films are, sometimes one just wants to relax with one of his many star vehicles, marvelous entertainments like “The Comancheros” (1961), “The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965), “Big Jake” (1971) or “North to Alaska” (1960).
“North to Alaska” never won any great critical acclaim or awards, but it’s one of my favorites, containing equal parts action, comedy and romance. It’s long (121 minutes) and leisurely paced, but it’s a very agreeable pace, highlighting a group of very likeable characters in some very funny situations.
During the Yukon Gold Rush, Sam McCord (John Wayne) and partner George Pratt (Stewart Granger) have struck it rich. George has finally earned enough money to send away for his great love, a lovely French lass named Jenny currently living in Seattle. Because they need special mining equipment to work their lode, and Sam has more expertise in that field, George sends Sam to Seattle to purchase the equipment, pick up Jenny and bring her back to Alaska, where George has constructed a honeymoon cabin for the two of them.
Sam brings an armload of gifts to Jenny only to find her married. Disgusted with her (“I never yet met a woman that was half as reliable as a horse”) he gets drunk and meets Michelle (Capucine). He thinks she would make a fine replacement for Jenny and brings her with him to Alaska. Michelle has fallen in love with Sam, and he with her, but he feels honor bound to his partner.
In addition to that particular complication, the two partners have to fight off claim jumpers, while Michelle has to rebuke the amorous affections of George’s younger brother Billy (Fabian). Circling around all this activity is a con man named Frankie, played with enormous comic gusto by the great Ernie Kovacs.
The real fun comes in the scenes when George and Michelle try to make Sam jealous. Wayne’s reactions are priceless here. I think these scenes boast some of Wayne’s most accomplished comedic acting. Just thinking about some of his reactions makes me smile.
As you can see, there’s plenty of plot here to fill two hours. It’s never dull. There’s so much to recommend this movie I don’t even know where to start. Splendidly staged donnybrooks open and close the movie (the final one giving expert use of the town’s muddy streets). There’s a memorable outdoor picnic sequence in Seattle boasting nice comic turns by John Qualen and Kathleen Freeman. Kovacs is obnoxious but very funny; it’s a shame to realize he would be killed in an automobile accident only two years later. We lost a great talent, one sadly forgotten today. The scenery is gorgeous with crystal clear views of the great mountains and streams of the Pacific Northwest.
There’s also an infectious title song sung by Johnny Horton, and a sad reminder of how awful original songs for today’s movies are. Anyone who has suffered through the nominated Best Song performances for the last 10 years or so watching the Academy Awards knows what I’m talking about.
I realize I’ve used the terms “nice” and “pleasant” a lot in this review, but that’s what “North to Alaska” is. I even realized I was using the character’s first names in my synopsis, rather than their surnames as I usually do.
I like these characters, and I like this film. It’s a wonderful piece of escapism for all ages, the type Hollywood seems incapable of making anymore.
Rating for “North to Alaska”: Three-and-a-half stars.