Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Call of the Wild (1972) * * ¾

(first lines: narration)
The Indians in this frozen land tell of a ghost dog which runs at the head of a wolf pack. They are afraid. For it has more strength than any wolf, more cunning than any dog. No one knows from whence he came or why he stays. (Chapter 7: "The Sounding of the Call" from the book "The Call of the Wild" by Jack London.)

The movie begins with a winter scene of a pack of wolves including a German Shepherd dog surveying and then preying upon a large herd of caribou. It then cuts to the summer of 1897 in Santa Clara, California where Buck, a loyal spirited German Shepherd has it made as the family pet. That is until it is discovered that he is worth his weight in gold, or at least $75. He is sold to a broker who takes him to the Klondike where only dogs can do the work usually done by horses. There Buck goes through many lives, trials, and tribulations, and finally realizes his potential. On the way he learns many concepts such as surprise, deceit, cunning, loyalty, devotion, and love. As he is growing he feels "the call of the wild".

During the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, Buck is sold as a sled dog to rugged and fearless John Thorton (Charlton Heston), a kindly prospector out to make it rich in the snow-covered Yukon. Thorton is a twenty year veteran of Alaska and its harsh living and traveling conditions. He saw opportunity in the gold rush but it wasn't the gold. His plan was making his money by selling supplies to the onslaught of would be miners. John and his partner Pete (Raimund Harmstorf) landed their first job delivering mail for the U.S. government to isolated gold towns. All they needed for this job was knowledge and a good dog sled team. They had the knowledge and purchased the dogs.

Pete: I've never seen so many people.
John Thornton: And more are coming all the time. I tell ya, Pete, if this is the promised land, I'll take the open trail.

One of the dogs Thorton buys is Buck. They are both lucky to have each other. Unaccustomed to the freezing temperatures and snow through which he must pull Thorton's sled, Buck finds his new life quite difficult. However, Thorton does whatever he can to help Buck make the transition. As a result, a bond and unique friendship is formed between man and dog, and together they are able to endure the frigid weather and hardship of the wilderness, the savage lawlessness of the men who call it home, and survive life in the treacherous frozen North. Buck is a very intelligent German Shepard and learns to lead the team in no time. He is in good hands with Thornton who knows how to treat his dogs and actually cares for them. A lot of the greenhorn gold seekers treat their dogs badly and end up getting themselves killed along with their dogs.

Thorton and his team make their tough journey to Skagway and deliver the mail. Buck leads the dog team in covering the treacherous 600 mile journey from Skaguay to Dawson as the lead sled-dog in record time when no other dog team and it's owners would dare to try it. While the dogs are in a kennel for some much needed rest, some unscrupulous characters who couldn’t buy the dogs from Thornton steal the tired dogs. So with no rest at all the dogs are back out in the Alaskan countryside with a couple of thieves intent on making some big money. There are no other dogs in the town, so there is no way for Pete and Thornton to go after their dogs--they are gone. Buck is very smart and his captors die. One falls into a frozen river, and the other is frozen solid to the sled. The dogs take the sled to a small town where they are "claimed" and sold at an auction.

John Thornton: You hit that dog one more time, I'm gonna kill ya.
Hal: Go to hell! He's mine and I'll do what I like with him.
John Thornton: I shot four varmints already this morning. One more don't matter none to me.

Buck is stolen a number of times from Thorton, and once is almost shot and killed by the local bootlegger, but Buck always manages to escape and return home to John and Pete. Later Buck begins to yearn for a home in the wild. In the woods he develops a strong friendship with the local Timber Wolves. Torn between his two kind and caring human masters and his wolf family, Buck can't quite bring himself to break away from civilization to live in the wild. But one night a band of Indians attack the cabin where Thorton and Pete are staying and kill both of them. Buck and his wolf pack try to come to their rescue but are too late to save them.

With the two humans whom Buck loved now gone, he can now return to his distant descendants, the wild wolves in the dark and cold woods of the Klondike. In the end, Buck answers to something that was ingrained in his consciousness from the thousands of generations of canines that he evolved from: The Call of the Wild.

Academy Award winner Charlton Heston heads an international cast as John Thornton in this adaptation of the classic adventure novella by Jack London, famed author of "The Sea Wolf" and "White Fang". Like most movies based on great books, it falls a bit short. The directing was good, and the film has a good pace to it with a decent mixture of Alaskan scenery, action, romance, dreams, dogs and bad guys. And the story doesn't opt for the Hollywood "happy ending", it is a much more realistic.

The film was actually shot in Finland, but it looks like Alaska, with spectacular scenery. Acting is top notch. Heston gives us his usual with a great performance. Also very good are Raimund Harmstorf as his partner Pete, and Michèle Mercier as Calliope Laurent. The best acting of all may come from the dog Buck, especially when he interacts with the wolves . He does a remarkable job and makes his role a real character and not just an animal doing tricks. The sets are also noteworthy, with the era, clothing, gear and sets believably authentic and very well done. It's very reminiscent of the WHITE FANG (1991) sets, but they look even more authentic. The cinematography is very good with many outdoor shots of the pristine frozen wilderness. However, the lush music score doesn't always fit the film--it's a bit over dramatic and unsuitable at times. Near the beginning there is some choir music more appropriate for a horror film.

The cast also includes: George Eastman (Black Burton), Maria Rohm (Mercedes), Juan Luis Galiardo (Seze), Sancho Gracia (Taglish Charlie), Friedhelm Lehmann (Charles), Horst Heuck (Hal), Rik Battaglia (Dutch Harry), Alf Malland (Constantine), Alfredo Mayo (Judge Miller), Sverre Wilberg (Colonel), Olov Pedersen (Red Sweater), Per Amvik (François), Torbjørn Halvorsen (Perrault), Hans Stormoen (Master of Ceremonies), Kåre Siem (Piano Player), Dan Rosse (Old Miner), Roy Bjørnstad (Storeman), Ola B. Johannessen (Con Man), Per Tofte (Runner), Antonio Mayans (Jack), Jennifer Roberts (Mollie), Jody Hanson (Alice), Luis Barboo, Charly Bravo, and Buck the dog (Buck). Carlo Rustichelli composed the original music. Peter Yeldham, Win Wells, Harry Alan Towers, and Tíbor Reves wrote the screenplay based on Jack London's book. Hubert Frank wrote the German screenplay. Federico De Urrutia wrote the Italian screenplay. Ken Annakin directed.

This wonderfully naturalistic movie is not for the weak at heart. The story line was taken from Jack London's adventures of his own life experiences. It's moving and not supposed to be easy on the emotions. This film holds nothing back. All the highlights of the original story are portrayed and Charlton Heston has the main character John Thornton down to a tee. And unlike some Disney versions we see Buck's tribute and love for John. It's an adventure movie that parents and kids can enjoy together. However, the love story between Thorton and Buck is beautifully captured but some should be warned that there are a lot of scenes of animal abuse, which will certainly bother some.

The film is a European co-production with actors of several nations: German Raimund Harmstorf, French Michele Mercier, English Maria Rohm, Spanish Juan Luis Galiardo, and Italian George Eastaman. Charlton Heston said this is his worst film, but it is entertaining and watchable although it has a familiar story. This is definitely a European-style film from the 1970s. Everything about it speaks loudly about the European influence: the cast, the music, the cinematography, and the editing. Heston isn't miscast here like some say, he's just very different from what might be expected, but does an admirable job. Some of his best film work was during this time, not the studio blockbusters he was known for prior to this.

THE CALL OF THE WILD has been adapted to film a number of times. In 1908 D.W. Griffith produced an American short film. A 1923 version directed by Hal Roach starred Jack Mulhall. In 1935, William Wellman directed Clark Gable and Loretta Young in a Hollywood-style romance about a young widow and a Yukon prospector. A popular success, this version of the film took various liberties with London's plot. In 1976 James Dickey wrote the script for a made for TV movie starring John Beck as John Thornton. In 1997 THE CALL OF THE WILD: DOG OF THE YUKON was made in Canada for TV, narrated by Richard Dreyfuss and starring Rutger Hauer. CALL OF THE WILD is also a 2000 TV series on Animal Planet. In 2007 a documentary THE CALL OF THE WILD was produced about the American wanderer Christopher McCandless.

In Jack London's book, Buck's father was a Saint Bernard and his mother was a German Shepherd. The German Shepherd or Alsatian breed was created in 1889 by Captain Max von Stephanitz. He used a breeding "formula" which included 25 to 35 % wolf. All dogs trace their ancestry back 10,000 years to Old World wolves, but the German Shepherd is one third "recent wolf".

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