One of John Wayne’s most popular films, this comedic Western was directed by Henry Hathaway, from a script by John Lee Mahin, Nartin Rackin, and Claude Binyon, based on Laszlo Fodor’s play “Birthday Gift,” inspired by an idea from John Kafka.
Sam McCord (John Wayne) and his partner George Pratt (Stewart Granger) have struck it rich in the gold rush on Alaska. McCord intends to use his money to buy a Seattle mining machinery so that he can enhance his chances at making more gold. McCord is assigned by his partner to bring back to Alaska his fiance, while Pratt builds a honeymoon cabin for his bride.
Enters Frankie Canon (Ernie Kovacs), a fast-talking confidence man, who offers McCord a counterfeit diamond ring as security on a $500 loan. Further trouble ensues when Pratt’s younger brother Billy (singer Fabian) tries to sail on the barge with McCord. McCord throws the boy overboard and go to Seattle by himself, unaware that in his absence, Canon had befriended Pratt and Billy, selling them another diamond ring, this one for Pratt’s fiancee, Jennie.
In Seattle, McCord is surprised to find out that Pratt’s fiancee is already married to another man. Taking a refuge in a honky tonk, he meets Michelle (Capucine), an alluring femme eager to make as much profit from McCord’s generosity as possible.
Facing the dilemma of how to break the bad news to his partner Pratt, McCord comes up with an original idea. Why not present Michelle as a replacement for Jennie. Michelle agrees to go to Alaska, believing that she’s destined for McCord.
A rather predictable, if also fun, comedy of errors ensues, when all the protagonists gather in Alaska. Henry Hathaway directs in his customary smooth and fluent way, orchestrating in the process some thrilling brawls. (In 1969, Hathaway would direct Wayne in “True Grit,” his Oscar-winning film).
But the real fun resides in the courtship and romance between McCord and Michelle; never mind that Wayne is too old to play such naive games. By the 1960s, Wayne’s signature element of showing reticent shyness in declaring love for women has become a repetitive motif.
In “North to Alaska,” McCord/Wayne is literally forced into public confession of his love for Michelle, this time on Main Street of Noma, Alaska. As usual, McCord mistrusts women, having been nearly “trapped” into marriage twice before. “The wonderful thing about Alaska,” he tells partner Pratt, “is that matrimony hasn’t hit it up here yet. Let’s keep it a free country.” And later on, McCord says in similar vein, “Any woman who devotes herself to making one man miserable instead of a lot of men happy, don’t get my vote.”
Falling in love with Michelle, McCord tries to call off the deal, but against his better instincts, he has becomes jealous, and thus begins fomenting about women.
Capucine’s Michelle is told by Pratt: “I saw McCord once like this before, when somebody had stolen his horse,” again drawing an analogy between women and horses, a recurring theme in American Westerns.
McCord tries to prevent Michelle from leaving town, pursuing her on Main Street, while a large crowd follows them. “You’ve got to stay, Angel,” he says, “because you have to, that’s why.” Michelle is unconvinced, and he’s forced to go one step further, “Because I want you, too.” But Michelle is as stubborn as he is. “I don’t understand,” she says, “Come on, tell me, Sam.” The town’s crowd also roars, “Come on, Sam! Tell her!” Finally, McCord gives in, yelling, “Because I love you, that’s why!”
The picture’s production values are polished, particularly Leon Shmaroy’s colorful cinematography (the film was shot in CinemaScope), vet Dorothy Spencer’s sharp editing, and Lionel Newman’s buoyant score.
Release date: November 7, 1960
Running Time: 122 minutes
Produced and directed by Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin, Nartin Rackin, and Claude Binyon, based on Laszlo Fodor’s play “Birthday Gift,” inspired by an idea from John Kafka.
Camera (Color, DeLuxe); Leon Shamroy
Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer and Jack Martin Smith
Music: Lionel Newman