“I’ve never met [a woman] yet, that was half as reliable as a horse.”
In 1957, John Wayne signed a three-picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox. The first film was the unfortunate The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), after which Wayne devoted much of his time to the filming of The Alamo (1960). In spring 1960, he agreed to make North to Alaska as the second film in the Fox deal. (The Commancheros  would be the third.) Shooting was carried out at Point Mugu, California — a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles. The film was bedeviled by the script for much of the shoot. At the start, there was no script for the longest time, which partly resulted in the loss of Richard Fleischer as the film’s director and the eventual hiring of veteran Henry Hathaway to do the job. Wayne wasn’t happy, but he struck it out mainly because he needed the money. Once Hathaway took the directing reins, he found himself having to improvise with the script on a daily basis. Shooting was completed in August, editing in September, and the completed film was released in November 1960. Critical and box-office success followed, with the film earning more than $10 million.
Fox has now made North to Alaska available on DVD as part of a mini-festival of John Wayne western releases that also includes The Big Trail, The Commancheros, and The Undefeated.
Sam McCord, George Pratt, and George’s younger brother Billy strike it rich in Alaska. George has a fiancée back in Seattle and Sam is dispatched there to bring her up to Alaska, while George stays behind to protect the gold find from claim-jumpers and the like. Once in Seattle, Sam soon finds that George’s fiancée has given up on him and married someone else. After spending some time in a Seattle brothel, Sam meets a very attractive prostitute named Angel, and decides that she will make a good substitute for George’s fiancée. He manages to persuade her to accompany him to Alaska on the next boat.
Once back in Nome, Sam finds that George is less than impressed with Angel as a substitute for his fiancée and that there is a plot afoot to separate George and Sam from their claim. Complicating everything is Sam’s gradual awareness that he is starting to fall for Angel himself.
I know I’m the odd man out on this, but I’ve never understood the almost uniformly positive reaction to this film. It seemed to be some great revelation to people that John Wayne could be effective in a comedic role, but anyone at all familiar with his previous career would have already known that. Maybe none of his previous roles were quite so overtly played for laughs, but the seeds were certainly there in a number of titles, including several of his Three Mesquiteer westerns for Republic in the 1930s, A Lady Takes a Chance (1943), and The Quiet Man (1952) to name a few.
But even were I to grant you that the film showed some distinctly new comic dimension of the Duke (who plays Sam), I’d then point to a plot that seems to inch along at times, a collection of supporting players who are out of their depth such as Ernie Kovacs and Fabian, and a leading lady (Capucine), who while admittedly beautiful, comes across very blandly in the film. The humorous fights that seem to be staged mainly to see who can get the wettest or dirtiest become tiresome quickly and the special effects injected into them at times are merely out of place. Even the usually-reliable Stewart Granger (as Sam’s partner George) doesn’t help, possibly because his character is more annoying than heroic in the story. Yes, John Wayne’s role is quite in character for him, but that’s hardly enough to give the film a rousing endorsement. When James Stewart ventured up north in 1955 in The Far Country, he wisely did so with a dramatic story rather than a comedic one and without the pop star of the month. John Wayne would have done well to follow Stewart’s example.
Fox admittedly does a fine job on the DVD release. The 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation is very nice indeed. The image is virtually free of debris and exhibits very natural colour, deep blacks, and fine shadow detail. Edge effects are almost non-existent.
The Dolby Digital 4.0 surround track is a cut above many similar such tracks. It delivers quite a rich sound, even with some noticeable surround effects. The title song sung by Johnny Horton has real presence and provides a level of audio enjoyment that the rest of the film manages to maintain.
The supplements are modest. There is a short Movietone newsreel on the premiere of the film (with the main focus on Fabian) and three trailers. The latter include the film’s original theatrical trailer and trailers for The Undefeated and The Commancheros.
John Wayne is very much in his element in North to Alaska, but the vehicle is a north-western with comic overtones that never really catches fire. Wayne is let down by much of his supporting cast and the plot isn’t interesting enough to rescue him. Fox’s DVD presentation is first-rate though typically thin on supplements for a catalog release. Fans of the film will be quite happy.