Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Trail of '98

Another movie that I finally got around to watching off of my DVR is the late silent The Trail of '98. As an MGM movie, it's been made available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive MOD service, so I can feel comfortable doing a full-length blog post on the movie.

The '98 in the title refers to 1898 which of course was the most recent '98 at the time the movie was made. But let's go back one year further than that, to 1897. Up in distant Alaska, gold was found in the Klondike region. Due to the remoteness of the location and the difficulties of transport, it wasn't until 1898 that the new took America by storm. But as with Sutter's Mill 50 years earlier, once it was reported that there was gold in them thar hills, there were a lot of people who decided that trying to make a fortune in Alaska was no worse than the reality of the daily life they were living down in the lower 48 (technically lower 45 since there were still three territories, but that's neither here nor there). So, the first 20 minutes or so of the movie involves people in various parts of the country learning about the gold strike and deciding that they were going to make their way to San Francisco, from which the boats would leave for Alaska.

Once we get on the boat is when the characters begin to get a bit more fleshed out. Larry (Ralph Forbes) is stowing away on the boat which is how he meets Berna (Dolores Del Rio), who is travelign with her grandfather in order to make it up north with some other distant relatives who are going to be not gold panners, but the people serving the gold panners. Lars (Karl Dane) winds up with a "partner" who is really a lazy git willing to let Lars do all the work. Jack Locasto (Harry Carey) is the villain of the piece as we'll really learn in the third act; he wants Berna and all the gold claims for himself.

Eventually the boat gets to Alaska, which is where the good part of the movie comes: the trek to Dawson and the Yukon. It's an incredibly difficult overland passage, with people having to walk through the long winter carrying a mass of supplies on their back, making it over mountain passes and frozen rivers, at least until the spring came. Once spring hit and the river ice started thawing, there was the even more daunting task of making it down the swollen river and its rapids. (Apparently four stunment died doing some of the stunts we see, although we also see some pretty bad rear-projection photography.) Eventually they do get to the Klondike, only to find that the odds of them striking gold are incredibly long.

It's in the Klondike that we get the third act. Larry fails at striking gold, and is ready to go back to the States with Berna, until he hears of another strike, leading him to leave Berna alone while he goes off looking for that gold. Jack sees this as his chance to get at Berna, who is left with little means to support herself other than the old one you can probably guess. This time, Larry does strike gold, but will his friends be able to save him and get him back to town? And what will happen with him and Berna?

The Trail of '98 is a movie with a lot of well-conceived visuals, but unfortunately is fairly lacking in plot. I found it a bit hard to keep all of the characters straight, and the best action is in the middle third of the movie. (Well, OK, there is a finale involving fire and a big fight between Jack and Larry.) Still, that middle third, with the overland trek across Alaska, more than makes up for the flaws in the other two sections of the movie. In addition to the rapids scene, there's an avalanche and several long shots of a cast of thousands truding through the snow. Overall, if you haven't seen The Trail of '98 before, it's well worth a watch.

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