"Listen...for a man, or a mole, or a bird - every day is life and death."
1952 was a good year for Stewart Granger. Riding high at the peak of his career, the British star made four films that year: the early heist film The Light Touch, with Pier Angeli and George Sanders; the wonderful swashbuckler Scaramouche (with its deservedly-famous, 7-minute long climactic fencing duel); the color remake of The Prisoner of Zenda (against baddie James Mason) and, last but certainly not least, the rugged outdoor adventure pic, The Wild North.
The Wild North is essentially a western (technically, a northwestern), its action taking place in the remote regions of Canada (never stated, but likely somewhere in the Yukon). Granger stars as Jules Vincent, a French-Canadian trapper with a lust for life and devil-may-care philosophy. Vincent arrives in a tiny settlement with furs to sell and the intention of engaging in some drunken carousing. Instead he ends up adopting a couple of strays - a kitten with more backbone than size, and a beautiful Indian woman (played by stunning dancer Cyd Charisse), who's eking out an existence singing and being pawed at by drunken frontiersmen in a saloon.
Jules brings the cat into the bar with him, and soon is chatting up the sad-eyed crooner. "Does it have a name?" she asks about the kitten. "Does it have to? Do you?" Jules replies. "Do I have to?" she answers back. "No."
Before he knows it, Jules finds himself making a promise to bring the woman back to her people (she's part Chippewa), on the way up to his winter cabin in the north, but not before cheerfully trouncing an inebriated bear of a man named Brody (Howard Petrie) who presumes to lay hands on her. Sure enough, the next morning, the Indian maiden (who never does get named in the film) is waiting for Jules at his canoe. He doesn't remember his drunken promise, but he agrees to take her with him anyway (he's not stupid). A contrite Brody wants to accompany them and vows to be a useful hand with a paddle. Jules reluctantly takes him up on his offer. But it seems Brody has revenge on his mind when he forcibly steers their canoe into deadly rapids. When Brody refuses to turn the canoe towards the shore and safety, Jules is forced to kill him. He leaves the girl with her tribe, with a promise from the chief (John War Eagle) to take her under his protection. He then heads north, wanting to put some distance between himself and the police, who he doesn't trust to take him at his word about the killing being justified.
Jules thinks no man will chance the brutal coming winter, but he hasn't counted on the tenacity of RNWM Police Constable Pedley (Wendell Corey). Pedley first heads to Jules' summer cabin in the settlement of McQuarrie, where he finds the Indian woman, who - clearly smitten with the larger-than-life Jules - has set up housekeeping. Pedley then tracks Jules down at his remote cabin, slaps handcuffs on him and together the two men head out into the frozen wilderness, Pedley determined to bring Jules in for a fair trial, Jules determined to stay free. A battle of wills begins, not only between themselves, but against the pitiless elements, including rapidly worsening weather, subzero temperatures, treacherous avalanches and ravenous wolves...
The Wild North is an engrossing adventure story, made by the MGM machine at the top of its game. There were a number of talented technicians behind the camera, including screenwriter Frank Fenton (who wrote many fine films, including River of No Return, Garden of Evil, Escape From Fort Bravo, His Kind of Woman and Station West). Fenton's script hands most of the choice lines to the colorful, lusty Jules. The film features gorgeous cinematography by Robert Surtees, filmed (in "Ansco Color"!) at the MGM lot, with many of the exteriors done at Sun Valley in Idaho and some in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Bronislau Kaper delivers a suitably big, bold score, and Hungarian-born director Andrew Marton (who had worked with Granger a few years before when he took over the helm of King Solomon's Mines from ailing Compton Bennett) serves up the icy mountain action with practiced ease.
Usually cast as a smooth, sophisticated type, Stewart Granger grabs the juicy part of Jules Vincent by the throat, and launches into the role with zest, complete with stock French accent ("Hey baybeee!" is his constant refrain). He makes for a fine mountain man, and enjoys great chemistry with both the winsome Charisse and gruff Corey. I've always enjoyed Granger when he's cast as the lead in costume dramas or (less frequently, but also effectively) westerns. The 50s as a whole show Granger at his best, perhaps an actor of no great depth but one of immense charm, physical dexterity and an easy confidence that makes him perfect for adventure films like this one.
Wendell Corey might seem at first glance an unusual choice to play a hard-charging mountie, but he does a nice job here. Best known for playing Jimmy Stewart's wry police detective chum in Rear Window, or perhaps as the losing corner of the romantic triangle in the winning Christmas movie Holiday Affair (with Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum), Corey was a busy and reliable character actor in film and television. I'm more used to seeing Corey in urban settings but he's convincing enough as the morally upright but tough policeman.
Cyd Charisse's role as an Indian is yet another example of Hollywood casting for star power rather than authenticity, and will come as no surprise to western lovers accustomed to this very common practice (Debra Paget as James Stewart's doomed love interest in Broken Arrow, the Italian Elsa Martinelli opposite Kirk Douglas in The Indian Fighter, Andra Martin as blue-eyed Wahleeah in Yellowstone Kelly, to name but a few). Famed for her long, long legs and expert dance technique, Charisse was 31 at the time of filming and already had been working a decade in Hollywood, mostly in musicals. It's hard to see what attracted her to her role in The Wild North; it's a pretty untaxing part. Maybe she was assigned to the movie and had no choice but to accept it; maybe she was happy to do something different, a straight role that didn't involve dancing. In any case, she's fine as the subdued, deep-feeling love interest, and with her dark eyes and her lustrous black hair kept in braids for most of the film, is a better-than-average facsimile of an Indian by Hollywood standards.
The rest of the cast are mostly unknown to me but add to the movie's believable tapestry of life on the remote frontier. J. M. Kerrigan makes an impression as the kindly owner of a mercantile store who is continuously caving in to the mute longings of a chocolate-loving, underpaying young boy. Sharp-eyed viewers will likely recognize a brief appearance by Ray Teal, best known to TV addicts for his long-running role as Sheriff Roy Coffee on Bonanza.
The two leads play well off each other, for much of the picture each entrenched in their own moral corner. Corey's stern but righteous lawman finds himself liking the cheerful, roguish Jules but is nevertheless bound and determined to see the job through and trust the system to which he's pledged his spartan life to see justice done. Granger wisely plays Jules with a touch of ambiguity; for a long while, we're not sure whether he'll do the right thing or fully embrace the life of an outlaw.
Gradually, their perilous situation brings them closer together, and initial distrust gives way to grudging respect.
I've always been partial to movies featuring mountain men; I find such folk's fatalistic embrace of their tough, isolated outdoor lifestyle intriguing. The Wild North is reminiscent of later films wherein a frontiersman heads north to escape the long arm of the law, such as Challenge to Be Free (1975) and Death Hunt (1981). Screenwriter Fenton throws in a late-reel plot development that I didn't see coming and which adds an interesting psychological wrinkle to this man vs. nature tale.
The film delivers plenty of spectacle and excitement, including a fast-cut, nightmarish wolf attack and a final death-defying run down some extremely savage white water rapids. The end result is a very pleasing tale of survival, courage and man's triumph over nature, and acceptance of his own.
DVD Note: The Wild North is available in Region 1 on a MOD disc from the Warner Archive program. The print used hasn't been remastered but looks much better than most TV airings of the film. Sometimes the image is terrifically clear, and other times more faded, with fluctuating color, the occasional speckling and even one instance of a hair in the gate. Generally speaking, though, the disc looks quite nice; Ansco Color reportedly has a tendency to fade to brownish earth tones, but mostly the colors here are rich and vibrant.
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