The story that inspired the Iditarod dogsled race is one of the great pieces of Alaskan lore, a genuine tear jerker about heroic mushers and dogs dashing through a deathly cold winter to deliver diptheria serum to Nome, which was teetering on the edge of a pandemic.
There was a pretty good kids’ cartoon, “Balto,” named for the lead dog in the last leg of that “Race to Mercy,” and if you ever visit Central Park, you can see a beloved statue to him commemorating that feat, a bronze sculpture rubbed shiny by the thousands of kids’ hands that touch it every year.
“The Great Alaskan Race” reaches for those tears, but may best be appreciated by being the most historically accurate — if fictionalized and not wholly complete — version of this story we’re likely to get.
Actor turned actor, writer and director Brian Presley (“U.S.S. Indianapolis: Men of Courage”) stars as the hero of that relay run, Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian immigrant who covered the longest legs of that 674 miles sprint, and the most dangerous — over the frozen surface of the Norton Sound.
Other mushers included the guy who handled the first leg, from Nenana — Wild Bill Shannon (James Russo) and the Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen (Will Wallace).
The pandemic, coming close on the heels of the global plague named the “Spanish Influenza” outbreak, gripped America’s newspapers, and was covered by the first radio station in Alaska.
The town doctor, Curtis Welch (Treat Williams) was the one who diagnosed the illness that was starting to pick off Native Inuit and other locals, some of them children, and who sounded the alarm.
The territorial governor, Scott Bone, portrayed as a drinker who worried about “bad press” by Bruce Davison, gambled on the dogs even as the big local newspaper publisher (Henry Thomas) railed at him in print for not using open cockpit airplanes in the dead of winter to make the run, for using this “Stone Age solution” to a crisis.
The teams would hand off a cylinder of anti-toxin after runs to places like Whiskey Creek, along the Iditarod Trail, a sled dog mail route that passed through a mining town named for what the miners told the pay master about how much ore they’d cleared that day –– “I did a rod.”
Presley’s 85 minute film points out that there had already been a sled dog race, that Seppala and his now-aged lead-dog Togo were undisputed masters of the All Alaska Sweepstakes.
There’s grousing and panic amongst the iced-over townsfolk and mushers — “You know what we don’t need in Hell? A Devil’s Advocate!”
“You know the rule of 40? Never run a dog at 40 above or 40 below?”
The film’s fictional elements add some drama. It has Seppala losing his Native Inuit wife to the Spanish Flu years before. Yes, his daughter Sigrid (Emma Presley) was at risk. No, she wasn’t already sick when he made his desperate dash.
Pressley’s movie cuts between static and dramatically flat — save for a bit of emotion from Williams, playing the doctor — interiors and grim depictions of the deathly cold, ice fog and whiteout blizzard conditions of the trail. It undercuts the film’s tension when the “drama” consists of the governor having another drink, arguments, mild-mannered debates, characters like Nurse Constance (Brea Bee) expressing worry and concern.
The radio narration of the “Serum Run” progress is a tried and true storytelling crutch, but a tired one. In a variety of ways, the storytelling, editing and music fail to deliver the harrowing suspense the story needs to move forward. Perhaps Pressley got TOO caught up in including so many way points, so much back story, so many characters.
And it’s not like he didn’t take liberties and shortcuts with the history presented here.
Neither of the Norwegian mushers are performed with an accent. There’s no hint that they’re immigrants.
But the movie’s great sin of omission is one ordained by history itself. Most of the mushers were Inuit, Athabaskans — natives — postal workers used to covering that trail. Their names didn’t feature in newspaper accounts, nor do they here. The PC Police call that “whitewashing,” and in this case, the label is warranted. Inuit figure in the film story of — as victims. The only acknowledgement of this postal connection is the presence of Post Office Inspector Edward Wetzler (Petrie Willink), who had the governor’s ear during the crisis.
As I noted at the outset, this is probably the most accurate version of this story we’re likely to see told on the big screen. Dramatically, though, it feels like a pulled punch. There’s pathos here, from Presley’s desperate, dog-and-daughter-loving Seppala, from Williams. It’s just not enough.
And if you’re hanging your movie’s rep on its accuracy, maybe listen to a few Norwegians speaking English on Youtube, or watch a few John Qualen performances from the ’40s and ’50s. These characters almost certainly had accebts.
Wiping Native and immigrant heroes out of your movie makes its own statement, and it’s not a flattering one.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material, brief bloody images, some language and smoking.
Cast: Brian Presley, Treat Williams, Bruce Davison, Henry Thomas and James Russo
Credits: Written and directed by Brian Presley. A P12 Films release.
Running time: 1:25