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Movie Review

In this hyper-connected age, most of us tend to think that we’re isolated if our smartphones don’t register full bars. But not every place, in every time, was like that.

Take Nome, Alaska. Even today, it’s not the easiest place to get to. Located near the Arctic Circle, there’s no highway into town, no convenient railway line. Most people fly in. A few ships sail there in in the summer. And a hardy handful manage to get there via snowmobile or dogsled, on the Iditorad Trail. And if there’s a storm? Good luck getting there at all.

If it’s hard to get to Nome today, imagine it’s the winter of 1925.

The aeronautics industry is in its infancy, with most airplane engines freezing up in Alaska’s bitter cold. Ports are frozen over. The snowmobile is a decade away from being invented, much less usable over long distances. The only real viable transportation in and out of Nome is via dog sled—and the trip to the outside world takes a month. Longer in bad weather.

But here’s the deal: A sizable chunk of Nome’s children are sick with diptheria, an extraordinarily contagious disease that can often be fatal. It can be treated via an antitoxin, but Nome’s supply has expired. Even if hospitals around the country send more, the closest they can get it to Nome is the town of Nenana … nearly 700 miles away. And most of the sick kids don’t have a month: They have days.

Leonhard Seppala knows what it’s like to lose a loved one to sickness. The musher and the miner—already a legendary dogsledder—lost his wife in the flu epidemic of 1918. He was hardly alone in his grief: Half the town’s Inuit population died during the outbreak, and the tears fell like snow. But Leonhard’s grief seemed especially bitter. His wife had just given birth to Sigrid just months before; now the little girl would never know her mother.

Seppala’s whole world was wrapped up in his daughter and his sledding dogs. He worked like a dog himself to provide for them. But his wife’s death destroyed his faith and smothered his interest in most other people. If he lost Sigrid, too … well, best not dwell on that.

So when the diptheria epidemic strikes Nome, an SOS goes out to the region’s mushers—the dogsledders who, together, just might be able to employ a relay system to bring the serum from Nenana. Seppala and his trusty lead dog, Togo, are among the many who answer the call.

But another musher describes the perils of traveling in temperatures that drop well below zero: “The air freezes and every breath you take is like shoving a knife in your lungs,” he says. “You start to see things. And if those dogs give out, you’ll find you and them dead.”

The children of Nome aren’t the only ones at risk this frigid winter. The mushers and their dogs are, too.

And there’s a storm rolling in.

Positive Elements

The Great Alaskan Race chronicles the legendary Serum Run of 1925—a rescue mission that inspired the annual Iditarod Race. With such a heroic backdrop, it’s no surprise that heroes lurk behind every snowdrift—and not all of them are on a dogsled.

Constance, a young nurse who seems to have an eye on the widower Leonhard, says that she loves Sigrid as if she was her own daughter. Constance proves that by tenderly caring for the girl in Leonhard’s absence. Dr. Welch, Constance’s father, serves as Nome’s only doctor, and he tirelessly cares for his sick charges.

Even Mayor Maynard, the town’s wealthy mining magnate, comes across well here. Rather than being the stereotypical selfish tycoon most movies like this give us, Maynard clearly cares for the employees in his care—even giving Leonhard a special Christmas bonus. He, like everyone else in town, does his part to help facilitate the delivery of the serum.

But the mushers and their dogs take center stage here, especially Leonhard Seppala. They all risk their lives and suffer a great deal of hardship to deliver the serum to town, and the movie suggests the journey was especially hard on Leonhard and his wizened lead pooch, Togo.

Spiritual Content

The Great Alaskan Race carries the tang of a Christian movie, with faith forming an important (if understated) element of many of our characters. But it’s not as simple as that.

Leonhard appears to have a Christian background (and a cross hangs on a wall in his cabin), but his faith was pretty much broken by the death of his wife. In one scene, he literally curses God for his misery, and he only goes to church when Sigrid begs him to. (Even then, he stands at the back of the church as Sigrid sings in the front with the children.) But later, he agrees to go to church more readily.

Others lean on their faith during this extraordinarily trying time. A few women are shown crossing themselves and praying. A cross hangs on a hospital wall. A national radio news anchor says that when things look particularly bleak, “All we can do is pray. Pray for Leonhard Seppala and pray for the good citizens of Nome.” A cross decorates a grave. We hear lots of talk about Christmas and hear children sing “Silent Night,” as well as other spiritually themed songs.

When a newspaper editor (colorfully known to history as William Fentress “Wrong Font” Thompson) criticizes the state’s plan to use archaic sled dogs instead of airplanes for transporting the serum (of which he happened to own), the governor tells him to chill. “Have a little faith, will you? You ever heard of that concept?” (The governor also suggests that this crisis is a little like living in hell.)

But a more indigenous form of faith mixes with Christianity here. The Great Alaskan Race is narrated by (it would seem) an Inuit elder who says that every living thing has a spirit. “To take a life,” he tells us offscreen as Leonhard hunts, “you first have to honor the spirit and thank them for their sacrifice.” The film suggests that Leonhard understands this connection to spirit—a belief stemming from a more animistic belief system.

When Leonhard’s wife dies, the narrator tells us that Anguta—a deity with attributes of both a wolf and a bear—ushers the souls of the dead to their “final resting place.” Leonhard seems to have visions of a white wolf at times, and he shoots and kills a bear that the narrator suggests was sort of a spiritual retaliation for his wife’s death. (Did Leonhard believe that he was actually shooting that part of Anguta? Or just a bear that reminded him of the spirit? Who knows? The spirituality gets a little confusing in places.)

In a time of mortal crisis, Leonhard seems to have another vision of walking with his dead wife. But he hears Sigrid’s voice and is called back to the land of the living as his wife vanishes in the sunshine. Later the narrator suggests that a “higher spirit” led the mushers across Alaska, without specifying who or what that higher spirit was.

Sexual Content

Leonhard and his wife kiss and exchange tender words of love (before her death). She tells Leonhard that she’s pregnant, and he presses his head against her belly. Later, he kisses another woman on the cheek.

Violent Content

Leonhard hunts, and we glimpse him butchering the carcass of a caribou. We see some blood on the rocks, but most of the scene is more suggestive than graphic. He shoots and kills a bear, too: We don’t see the kill, but as he cuts up the carcass, Leonhard does cover his hands with blood and smears the red stuff all over his face as he screams up to the heavens.

Mushers and dogs alike risk freezing to death during the serum run. One of them is rocked by what seems like an explosion of ice and snow, and he wakes up to find himself hanging over a deep chasm. He needs the help of his dogs to pull him to safety.

In Nome’s hospital, a sick girl dies from diphtheria: Her mother wails in agony when she’s told. Other children look very ill as well. Dr. Welch recalls the awful flu outbreak of 1918, a year when so many citizens of Nome and the surrounding environs died. “I was helpless,” he says, “and now it’s happening again.”

Crude or Profane Language

Three uses of "d--n,” three more of “h---” and a handful of misuses of God’s and Jesus’ name. At one juncture, Leonhard uses the phrase “g-dd--n” to curse the Almighty.

Drug and Alcohol Content

A musher drinks from a flask before beginning his leg of the journey. People pour whiskey while engaged in conversation, and others drink beer as they listen to Nome’s plight over the radio. People smoke in a movie theater.

Other Negative Elements

Thompson, the airplane-owning newspaper editor, seems less than supportive of the rescue effort after the governor rejects the use of his planes (which failed in a couple of test flights to see if the option was even viable).

Conclusion

This isn’t the first time the great Serum Run of 1925 has made it to the big screen. The story most notably did so in 1995’s G-rated film Balto, which focused on the run’s most famous dog. (Balto’s statue graces a corner of New York’s Central Park, too.)

But while Balto and his driver, Gunnar Kaasen, played an important part in the relay and covered the last 50 miles into Nome with the needed serum, Leonhard Seppala and Togo covered 350 miles of the relay—which included by far the most dangerous stretch and temperatures that dipped well below 30-degrees-below zero. (The movie suggests that they raced in 80-below-zero temperatures.)

Oh, and here’s another fun fact: Balto was actually owned by Seppala, too. Kaasen was just borrowing the pooch.

The participants in the Serum Run needed to embrace not only exceptional courage, but a clarity of purpose to do what they did.

Unfortunately, the movie lacks a similar focus.

The Great Alaskan Race means well. Brian Presley, the director and star, is a Christian, and he works hard to bring not just the historical record’s inherent drama and inspiration to the screen, but a sense of faith as well.

But while lots of the movie’s elements would feel right at home in a faith-based film, The Great Alaskan Race also pulls some vague, disjointed animistic elements to the party—stuff I’m pretty sure was meant to stress the multiculturalism of early 20th-century Alaska, but which ends up confusing things more than anything. And while the language here is no worse than we might hear in a typical broadcast sitcom, moviegoers expecting a more Kendrick Brothers sense of purity may be a little dismayed. While the narrative as a whole can be compelling, thanks to the historical backstory, scenes meant to pack a punch sometimes end up offering just a finger-flick.

In other words, The Great Alaskan Race is not a great movie. But it does tell a great story. And for those who’d like to hear it, you could do worse.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Brian Presley as Leonhard Seppala; Treat Williams as Dr. Welch; Brad Leland as Mayor Maynard; Henry Thomas as Thompson; Bruce Davison as Gov. Bone; Will Wallace as Gunnar; Brea Bee as Constance; James Russo as Wild Bill

Director

Distributor

P12 Films

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

October 25, 2019

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

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Adults
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