Alaska Film Making

By Terrence Cole

In 2014, the film Spirit of the Wind, originally produced three decades earlier, is being re-released.  The film is a dramatization of the life of George Attla, the sprint-mushing legend best known as the Huslia Hustler. The movie was filmed in Alaska in 1978, but it was not the first movie filmed in Alaska.  In an April 1978 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner column, Terrence Cole, Professor of History at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, noted the making of the original film and recounted a movie made in Alaska 55 years earlier.
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A few weeks ago at a Safeway checkout counter I saw George Attla in People magazine.  And on the cover of the Alaska Advocate there was a picture of George behind his sled, under the headline: “A Star is Born in Alaska.”

In recent weeks the movie crew making “Catch the Wind” [evidently the working title during filming], the story of Attla’s life, has been looking for people with “’50s clothing” to be extras in the filming of a recreation of the 1958 Fur Rendezvous sled dog race.  When the movie is released later this year, the crowds in every theater in Alaska are going to watch “Catch the Wind” more closely than the Invisible Man, trying to see themselves and people and places they recognize.

It should be a good movie.  At the starting line on the last day of the North American race this year, Attla’s lead dog was so excited he was jumping three feet into the air, while George walked around with his earband, his stiff leg, and a cigarette, looking as calm as Humphrey Bogart about to make a run through the Nazi lines.

“Catch the Wind,” however, is not the first movie to be made entirely in Alaska.  In April 1923, the Alaska Moving Pictures Corp., owned by “Cap” Lathrop, was filming “The Great White Silence,” a movie that later was released as “The Cheechakos.”

Lathrop, a famous Alaskan businessman and millionaire, owned a chain of movie theaters in Cordova, Anchorage, and Fairbanks.  In 1923, he decided to finance “the greatest allegorical picture ever made.”

He planned to make a movie that would tell the true story of the Alaskan gold rush, explain to the people of the East and the West the “infinite possibilities” of Alaska, and make a lot of money.   Lathrop thought his movie would also be the start of “one of Alaska’s great industries” and that Anchorage could become another Hollywood.

He lured a crew of about 30 professionals from California with six movie cameras to record the epic of Alaska.   Sydney Lawrence painted the art titles for the picture and four silent-movie stars from Hollywood took the leading roles.

The big chase scene was to be shot in McKinley Park where “two actors from the all-star cast will battle with one another, in one of the most startling episodes of the master production, featuring a grueling dogteam race, extending over many miles.”

The movie was supposed to be true to every detail, but art has its own license.  The magnificent dogteam chase starts below Mt. McKinley and shifts a few seconds later to the glaciers north of Cordova on the Copper River where the villain falls to his death as a huge slab of ice breaks off the front of the glacier.

The most spectacular scene in the movie was the re-enactment of the march over the Chilkoot Pass.  A trainload of extras from Anchorage went south to Mile 52 on the railroad where the “real veterans of the early days, many of them still retaining and wearing the identical garments and packs, such as jackets, parkas, fur hats and packboards, used by their owners during the stampede” again marched up the Chilkoot Trail.

This time, they walked in front of two airplane propellers where the men “stepped forth to flounder and battle in the blinding snow.”

When “The Cheechakos” was released in Alaska late in 1923, it played to packed houses all over the territory, and was called “the best Alaska picture ever filmed.”  Said one man, “It should go far–and bring home the bacon.”

Unfortunately, the film was the movie version of an Edsel.  One of Lathrop’s fellow investors lost more than $25,000 on it, and Alaska Moving Pictures Corp. never tried to film a sequel to the “greatest allegorical picture ever made.”

For more on movie-making in Alaska, see: Ann Fienup-Riordan, Freeze Frame: Alaska Eskimos in the Movies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995)

For more about the re-release of Spirit of the Wind and how to obtain copies, see an article in the Alaska Dispatch.