The Films of the Last Frontier
On Thursday, one of America’s youngest states celebrates its 150th birthday. On March 30, 1867, the U.S. officially acquired Alaska from Russia in a purchase famously derided by its critics as “Seward’s Folly” (after Secretary of State William H. Seward, who negotiated the deal). The Alaska Territory wouldn’t be admitted as the 49th state in the union until 1959, but the American film industry, fascinated by the Last Frontier, would begin producing movies about Alaska well before that, and continue well past it. In honor of its first century and a half as part of the U.S.A., here are 17 movies that celebrate Seward’s Icebox.
The Gold Rush (1925)
Charlie Chaplin gave one of his most iconic performances in this 1925 classic, a silent comedy in which his Little Tramp prospects for gold. Alaska’s Chilkoot Pass provides an unexpectedly perfect backdrop for Chaplin’s spectacular slapstick, the freezing wilderness an ideal home for his warm-hearted filmmaking. The movie was a hit at the time of release and its popularity has endured.
The Silver Horde (1930)
George Archainbaud’s romantic drama The Silver Horde, so named in reference to the appearance of salmon caught in fishermen’s nets, was the second film adaptation of Rex Beach’s 1909 novel of the same name. Joel McCrea stars as a salmon fisherman who is engaged to a wealthy socialite but attracted to Cherry Malotte (Evelyn Brent), an ambitious woman with a sordid history.
The Spoilers (1942)
Rex Beach’s The Silver Horde may have inspired two different movies, but the novelist’s 1906 work The Spoilers spawned no fewer than five adaptations, the fourth of which stars Marlene Dietrich as Cherry Malotte, a character that also appeared in The Silver Horde. Ray Enright’s 1942 Northern drama sees Cherry, a saloon owner, surrounded by corrupt prospectors and playing the game along with the best (John Wayne) and worst (Randolph Scott) of them. The film is famous for its long and carefully choreographed climactic fight scene; what doesn’t age so well is its offensive use of blackface as a disguise.
Road to Utopia (1945)
The fourth installment in the Road series starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour, Hal Walker’s Road to Utopia transplanted the trio’s brand of comedy to the Last Frontier. Crosby and Hope play two vaudevillians who find themselves in possession of a map charting a secret gold mine. What results is a wacky (and song-filled) race between the performers, a pair of thugs, and a scheming businessman, all of whom want the contents of the mine for themselves.
North to Alaska (1960)
After John Wayne played a prospector in 1942’s The Spoilers, he headed north once again for Henry Hathaway’s comedic Northern North to Alaska. This time, his character, Sam, has already found gold, but his mission is to fetch his business partner’s fiancée in Seattle and deliver her to Nome, Alaska. Unfortunately for Sam’s partner, his fiancée is already married to someone else; fortunately for Sam, he finds love himself with the dancehall girl (Capucine) he brings back as a substitute.
Runaway Train (1985)
Jon Voight and Eric Roberts star as two convicts who escape a maximum-security Alaskan prison and hop on a train. It appears to be a perfect getaway, until they find out that nobody’s driving, and there’s no way to stop speeding through the desolate northern landscape. The movie was directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, though Akira Kurosawa was reportedly the filmmaker originally at the helm. The thriller succeeded despite his absence: A hit with critics, the film was nominated for three Oscars in 1986.
A live-action/animation mutt, Balto tells the story of Balto, a Siberian husky who led his team of sled dogs through terrible conditions on the 1925 serum run to Nome, delivering diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska, from Seattle before an imminent outbreak of the disease. The film whimpered at the box office, having the truly hideous luck of being released the same weekend as another animated kids’ movie: The first Toy Story.
The Edge (1997)
Lee Tamahori’s survival drama stars Anthony Hopkins as a brilliant billionaire stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, where he and his companions (Alec Baldwin and Harold Perrineau) must survive both nature and the violent Kodiak bear (Hollywood icon Bart the Bear, in one of his last screen appearances) that hunts them — not to mention each other.
John Sayles’ Limbo moves from the small fictional Alaskan town of Port Henry — which is home to Joe (David Strathairn), his girlfriend Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and Donna’s daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) — to the Alaskan wilderness, to which the trio of heroes escapes when they witness a bloody crime. Even there, however, they can’t escape their pasts.
Mystery, Alaska (1999)
Amid all these survival thrillers and ice-cold dramas, we’ve finally got ourselves a sports movie! Jay Roach’s Mystery, Alaska intertwines the drama that exists between the denizens of the fictional title town (including Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, and Burt Reynolds) with their collective obsession with hockey. When Mystery’s weekly amateur hockey match is written up in a magazine and the town is chosen for a special televised event, they have to set aside their differences for their shot at glory.
Snow Dogs (2002)
Cuba Gooding Jr. stars in Brian Levant’s family film as a Florida dentist who inherits a pack of sled dogs and travels to Alaska to claim them and learn more about his family history; cold-weather fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue. The comedy did well at the box office and… less well with critics.
Christopher Nolan transposed this psychological thriller, based on a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, from a town in the Norwegian Arctic to the small town of Nightmute, Alaska. Al Pacino stars as an LAPD detective, dispatched along with one of his colleagues (Martin Donovan) to Nightmute to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. Once there, the officers’ fraught relationship, as well as the disorienting perpetual daylight, gets in the way of their investigation — and their ability to sleep.
30 Days of Night (2007)
While a state of perpetual daylight contributes to the high anxiety of Insomnia, the town of Barrow, Alaska’s annual month of polar night gives David Slade’s 30 Days of Night its premise (and its title) — because what better time for a vampire attack than a whole month of constant darkness? Based on the comic book miniseries of the same name, the horror film stars Josh Hartnett as Barrow’s sheriff and Danny Huston as the vamps’ bloodthirsty leader.
Into the Wild (2007)
Adapted by writer-director Sean Penn from Jon Krakauer’s 1996 chronicle of the life and death of Christopher McCandless, Into the Wild stars Emile Hirsch as the young man who abandoned his life of privilege, gave up all of his earthly possessions, and hiked across America in search of adventure. The young wanderer’s journey ended, famously, in the Alaskan wilderness, where he first survived off the land and ultimately perished. The film was applauded by critics and audiences alike, and scored two Oscar nominations.
The Proposal (2009)
One of the highest-grossing rom-coms of all time, Anne Fletcher’s The Proposal uses Alaska as the backdrop for a charming romance between Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. When Bullock’s character, a demanding Canadian executive, finds out that her visa is expired and she may be deported, she coerces her assistant (Reynolds) into pretending to be engaged to her. In order to convince immigration authorities that their relationship is authentic, they spend some time together with his family — in Sitka, Alaska.
The Grey (2012)
Liam Neeson stars in Joe Carnahan’s survival thriller The Grey as a man on an oil-drilling team that becomes stranded in the brutal Alaskan wilderness when their plane home crashes. As the group tries to navigate their way through the freezing landscape, another threat to their safety emerges: An angry pack of wolves is relentlessly pursuing them every step of the way.
Big Miracle (2012)
Ken Kwapis’ Big Miracle celebrates the wildlife, and the people devoted to protecting it, that lives in Alaska — or just off the coast. John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore star in the drama, which was based on a true story, as a news reporter and a Greenpeace volunteer, respectively, who campaign for the rescue of a family of gray whales trapped by rapidly forming ice. Joining them are a wide variety of other groups and individuals — many of whom would typically have nothing to do with each other — who dedicate their efforts and resources to the animals’ survival.