Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mushing in the Movies

Since silent films, sled dogs have been regulars in cinema. Early dog stars like Strongheart, Rin-Tin-Tin, and Lightning could be counted upon to do at least one or two northern wilderness dramas in their careers—if not a dozen of them. Adaptations of Jack London and James Oliver Curwood novels featured any number of canine stars and barking dog teams* which occasionally ran through the frozen north, but more often through studio backlots.

In recent years, wilderness filming locations have become more accessible and sled dogs more often have real snow to run through in the movies. After a surge in production of wilderness/sled films in the 1970s, the number slowed to what we are seeing today: a few good sled dog movies coming out each decade, with a handful of less known and made-for-TV movies in the mix.

Looking for a tale of cold noses and flying snow for those hot summer days? Here are the Reel Dogs top 10 sled dog flicks:

The Call of the Wild (1972): This dated Euro Western was a calibration of many countries and dozens of dogs. Filmed in breathtaking Lapland, Finland in place of Jack London’s Yukon, it stars a German Shepherd Dog as the famous Buck and many supporting “real” sled dogs to back him up.

Snow Dogs (2002): A recent Disney comedy inspired by a Gary Paulsen book and starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and D.J., who also stars in Eight Bellow. Not a very convincing portrayal of Alaskan sled dogs—comedy aside—since nearly all the dogs in the film are Siberian Huskies (as opposed to Alaskan Huskies).

Stone Fox (1987): This made-for-TV movie based on the children’s novel by John Reynolds Gardiner is about a boy desperate to win a sled dog race and save his grandfather’s ranch with the prize money. The canine star, who looks nothing like the dog described in the book, was trained by Bob Weatherwax, of Lassie fame.

Toby McTeague (1986): Only recently readily available on DVD, a film about a teenage boy who sets out to win a dog sled race with his family’s Alaskan Huskies and learns life lessons along the way.

Eight Bellow (2006): A remake of the tremendously popular Japanese film, Antarctic, Eight Bellow puts a Walt Disney spin on what was an extraordinary and harrowing true story of a dog team left on the South Pole.

Kayla (a.k.a. Kayla: A Cry in the Wilderness, 1999): Twelve-year-old Sam, devastated by the disappearance of his explorer father, finds a wild Alaskan Malamute who looks just like his father’s old lead dog, Kayla. Sam struggles to tame the dog and pull together a ragtag sled team to win a race in this Canadian/German production. It is based on the novel Three Dog Winter by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk.

Spirit of the Wind (1979): Based on the true story of famed musher George Attla, Spirit of the Wind is a remarkable story that deserves to be released on DVD, but remains very difficult to find.

The Call of the Wild: Dog of the Yukon (1997): Another made-for-TV film and another adaptation of Jack London’s classic wilderness novel. This version of The Call of the Wild, starring a Leonberger as Buck, may be the most faithful adaptation ever produced.

Antarctica (a.k.a. Nankyoku Monogatari, 1983): A team of Japanese scientists must leave behind their sled dogs in a storm on the South Pole, believing they will be able to return in a day or two for the dogs. Instead, they cannot get back and the dogs must fight to survive, alone in one of the most hostile natural places on Earth. A stunning film based on one of the most amazing true dog stories ever told.

Iron Will (1994): Another true story, Iron Will follows a young man from his quiet family farm to run in one of the most difficult and dangerous dog sled races in the world in 1917. Will must get from Winnipeg to Saint Paul with no one but his dogs to help him in order to save his family's farm and pay his way through college. Wonderful sledding cinematography, well told story, and gorgeous dogs.

*As anyone who has ever been around sled dogs knows, dog teams do not actually bark when they run, but real swords do not go
ching when flashed in sunlight either.