Critic Northrup Frye suggested that the final stage in genre development was parody or self-parody, and you’ll get no argument from John Wayne fans.
Self-deprecating humor gradually crept into The Duke’s Westerns. Later films—including this 1960 “Northern”—subtly parodied his distinctive mannerisms and the way he played a Western hero, consciously going for laughs part of the time.
Like “McLintock!” (1963), this tale of Alaskan gold prospectors circa 1900 blends comedy, romance, and Western tropes for a rollicking good time. That’s clear from the first slapstick saloon fight in which we see the hat of one “victim” fly upwards every time he’s punched, all choreographed to a player piano that keeps changing tunes every time something (or someone) is thrown against it.
I could get into plot summary, but the “North to Alaska” title song from Johnny Horton, which reached #4 on the pop charts, does a pretty good job of setting the atmosphere and telling the story—some of it off-stage prior to the opening scene.
More than “McLintock!,” “North to Alaska” is a romantic comedy disguised as a Western, so it’s good, really, that the cover finally reflects that. You know from the minute that Sam McCord (Wayne) goes to Seattle to fetch his partner’s fiancée while George Pratt (Stewart Granger) guards their mine and finishes his honeymoon cabin that things will not go as planned. Early in the film Sam realizes that George’s beloved Jenny is married already and propositions a woman named Angel (Capucine), whom he meets at a house of ill repute, to take her place and return with him to Nome.
Sam would do anything for his partner, but his own feeling about marriage is clear: “Any woman who devotes herself to making one man miserable instead of a lot of men happy doesn’t get my vote,” he tells Angel.
But in the romantic comedy genre it’s usually the confirmed bachelor who finds himself suddenly head-over-spurs in love—though he’ll fight it every step of the way. So in a way, the film becomes a showcase for all the positive attributes that makes the woman fall in love with him (like defending her honor at a logger’s picnic), and a case study for how a man so opposed to marriage would finally come around.
Thrown into the mix is misunderstanding, of course—in this case, with George thinking that Angel is for him, and George’s little brother Billy (pop singer Fabian) thinking he’ll jump that claim the way that local bad guys and con artist Frankie Canon (comedian Ernie Kovacs) have been trying to wrestle their gold mine away from them. Character actors Mickey Shaughnessy, Kathleen Freeman, and Stanley Adams help filmmakers walk that thin and sometimes muddy path between Westerns and comedies, helping to believably straddle both genres.
No parts of the film were shot in Alaska, but director Henry Hathaway (“How the West Was Won,” “True Grit”) makes good use of stand-in footage from Yukon, Canada and Big Bear Lake and Big Bear Valley in San Bernardino National Forest, so it’s visually stunning in CinemaScope.
If you like your John Wayne with a dose of humor, “North to Alaska” is one of his best, and there’s enough action and romance to make the film appeal to a broader audience than if it were a straight by-the-sixgun Western.
“North to Alaska” isn’t rated, but it would probably merit a PG-13 for the violence, adult situations, and a brief (but very noticeable) nipple slip in a scene where Capucine is bathing. It’s one of eight titles being released on Blu-ray for the first time, chosen by fans as winners or runners up in the by-decade Voice Your Choice ballot. It was the top vote-getter for the ’60s. It’s available through www.foxconnect.com.
“North to Alaska” is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, and it looks terrific in HD. There’s just the slightest amount of filmic grain and a rich-looking color palette that pops when you least expect it. I saw no compression issues as a result of the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc (31.5 MBPS). Fox did a great job with this title, though you’d expect the top vote-getter from the ‘60s to get special treatment, or the fans who voted it in would start an uprising. Black levels are perfect and the visuals are consistently strong throughout the film.
The audio is an English DTS-HD MA 4.0 that does a pretty good job of powering the sound past the speakers, considering it’s limited to four tracks. When Horton starts in on the theme song you know there’s just enough bass to give it heft, but not so much to start things vibrating. Additional audio options are Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 and French DTS 4.0, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish and French.
The only bonus features are the original theatrical trailer and a Fox Movietone News clip: “North to Alaska Premiere Besieged by B’Way Throngs,” but those news briefs are always fun to watch.
I can’t in good conscience call this one of John Wayne’s best movies, but I have to say that “North to Alaska” has always been one of my favorites. It’s just plain fun.