When I was a kid "Movie Night" was a big deal. Each kid got a turn at choosing a movie from our small library of VHS tapes one night out of the week when we ran the generator to charge the radios' battery. More often than not, I let one of my brothers, or my sister, take my turn. I was known for giving movie night a pass in favor of cuddling up to a good book, ruining my vision reading by kerosene lamp light.
To this day when the topic of movies that the rest of the family know by heart comes up, I am heard to say, "I never saw it." They just shake their heads. The funny thing is, because my bedroom was right above the game room where the movies were watched, I can quote from these movies I've never seen almost as well as they can. (No one tops my brother Robin who is a master at wittily inserting movie quotes into any conversation.)
So, I've never been a big movie person, but thanks to certain friends determined to wise me up, I've been receiving movies through the mail. I have to admit I'm enjoying them far more than I thought I would and find myself getting a thorough education in the history of cinema from Buster Keaton to Star Trek. And then there are movies I receive that purport to being set in Alaska, or having pivotal scenes in Alaska. More often than not, "Alaska" is anything but Alaskan.
I've decided to put up a new category titled "The Alaskan Movie Review," in which I will review movies with Alaskan settings--of both the faux and the real Alaska. I hope you enjoy them as much as I'll enjoy reviewing them.
My first review is of "The Hell Hounds of Alaska" starring Doug McClure. My dad is a big fan of westerns so I'm familiar with McClure in well-written TV shows like "The Virginian." I'm sorry to report that "Hell Hounds" is not his best outing.
Apparently, like the spaghetti westerns Clint Eastwood starred in, set in Italy, there was another subset of westerns filmed in Germany, in the 1970s, called schnitzel westerns. "Hell Hounds" is a schnitzel.
Before we get to the review, let's start with a true or false quiz to test your AQ (Alaskan Quotient) to see whether you know more about Alaska than the producers of this movie did.
1. Totem poles are often found in Alaska's frozen interior.
2. Totem poles look like Fisher Price toys on a stick.
3. Eagles often attack children in Alaska for no reason.
4. Alaska Natives look exactly like folks in the greater Mediterranean area.
5. You can go from deep snow in an Alaskan winter to leafy streams in only hours.
6. All dogs in Alaska are named Buck.
7. Wearing fur in the middle of summer is uncomfortable.
On to the movie: It has a highly forgettable plot about a gold shipment robbery with typical good guys and bad guys and mob and "Indian" violence and a painfully rehearsed barroom brawl with laughable sound effects (mostly women half-heartedly wailing). On the other hand, it has some weirdly matter-of-fact, surreal moments that made me marvel and/or laugh out loud.
Take for instance an early scene where Doug McClure comes across an injured friend who's built his cabin next to the lamest, most Fisher Price on a stick, lollipop looking totem pole ever produced. Let's not forget this is supposed to be deep in the snow-locked interior of Alaska where totem poles were not indigenous. We're told that this is"sacred ground to the Indians," which is apparently what the weird, Dutch-milkmaid totem pole is marking.
Later on, Doug McClure finds the Alaskan Natives, who are dressed and are acting exactly like the so-called Plains Indians in most westerns filmed during this time (and are very obviously European, much like in American westerns), torturing his friend whom they've tied to the lollipop--I mean, totem pole. In order to free his friend, Doug McClure challenges the leader of the tribe to the time-honored, Hollywoodesque knife fight--this time in the snow.
This is the most amazingly surreal scene in the entire movie. As I watched it I imagined what it was like to be a member of that German film crew trying to keep warm, watching some actors pretend to be in Alaska, with fake "indians," below a fake totem pole, with the beautiful Alps in the distance.
Throughout the movie the scenes, supposedly only hours apart, go from deepest snow and ice to canoe rides or horseback rides into leafy green woods, and to some desert dry areas, which is an obvious impossibility even during Alaska's warmest winters. Some of the actors, to maintain the illusion that they're in snowbound Alaska rather than in the middle of a German summer, retain a fur-trimmed vest, or hat, or gloves while leaving their shirts unbuttoned. In Doug McClure's case, he tenaciously hangs onto his fur-trimmed moccasins right to the bitter end no matter how hot and sweaty his feet must have gotten in the summer heat.
There is the usual pretty young innocent maiden, actress Angelica Ott, but she doesn't bother with the pretense of being in the frozen north, preferring to run around amongst her fur-bearing fellow actors in a short-sleeved, pink and black gingham dress. She chucks this outfit in favor of pants and a fur-free hide vest when her father the sheriff is killed and she declares her intent, as she straps on a pistol, to avenge him. That's as far as her vengeance goes, but it's another surreal moment how everyone in town just accepts this change of attire as perfectly reasonable in a gently bred girl of the time.
In addition tall this, there is some bizarrely off-hand racism. To modern ears the racist, inane dialogue is bad enough, but when you add in the fact that these actors are speaking German and the racism is dubbed in? That puts it over the top into awe-inspiringly awful.
Doug McClure, acting with people he apparently can't understand, who are speaking German, gives a bemused, hurried performance. He speaks superfast, as if that will get him through the scenes faster, and perhaps even get the movie over more quickly. While he "phones it in" acting-wise, I have to say that it looks like he took the role of mountain man seriously enough to not have shaved or washed during the entire production. Or maybe he was just depressed? It's hard to say.
But what is certain is that there were no "hell hounds" (whatever those are, and whatever they have to do with Alaska), as advertised. The only canines are some cheerful sled dogs and a pet who makes the ultimate sacrifice and is, of course, named Buck. Because all dogs in Alaskan literature are named Buck. (Just for the record, I have actually never met a dog in Alaska named Buck.) However, there are some bizarrely brutal eagles who attack a boy for no obvious reason, except that apparently this is a thing in "Alaska."
The cover of the dvd promises "savage action in the Far North" but I would say it was more accurate to call it "surreal action in the Faux North." Watch it if you must, but don't say I didn't warn you.
How did you do on the quiz? (Answers: 1-6/F; 7/T) For bonus points, name the Alaska movie on the TV screen in the first photo.
This is our busiest time of year as we gear up for the winter storms and snowfall to come, tightening up or putting in new shorelines, putting new surge anchors on them, cutting out worn pieces of rope, and checking to make sure all the knots are secure. We also work on adding flotation to our houses, new logs added to the outside or slid into bug-eaten openings.
But preparation for winter isn't all about hard labor. We also have to prepare our minds for the coming short days and diminishing sunshine. Even my Maine Coon Katya feels this urge. I catch glimpses of her quietly meditating on the last days of overhead sunshine and I wonder what she's thinking about the changing season.
At this time of the year I make a point of going for long rambles over the rocks, soaking in the piercing, poignant fall sunlight often framed by approaching storm clouds. I let the world fall away, forget the coming winter, and absorb the trenchant reality of the vast wilderness with my aloneness as a human being standing on the edge of the world.
We're surrounded by evergreen conifers so there are few trees that change colors, just the alders and crab apple trees, mainly, and those that do leap out from the endless variatians of perennial green. There's one evergreen, though, that works as a bridge between them--the western red cedar as it displays patches of brilliant orange, known as flagging.
Flagging is the red cedar's way of prioritizing its resources. It lets the inner foliage, that receives the least sun and doesn't get washed as often so it's the least productive, die off. It's alien but beautiful, and doesn't last for long. In the first big storm all those orange needles are blown off and mark the tideline for weeks to come, a reminder that the warm days of summer are gone.
On one of my long rambles I came across a red cedar log that the tide had perched, just for me, like a park bench between rocks overlooking the strait. I seated myself and soaked in the spash of the waves with the sun sparkling down on them as the bull kelp, rooted to rocks below, bobbed carelessly as if unaware of the storms that would eventually tear them loose and toss them on the shore. Geese flew over, black silhouettes against a perfect blue sky, waving goodbye to me as they headed south like the summer people and tourists that were absent from the strait after roaring up and down it all summer long. It was just me and the whales now.
It's at times like these that I know I'm the richest human on earth and can only thank God for these treasures that I'm storing up for the coming winter.
It's that time of the year again when we do our usual Fall things, but there was nothing usual about the bullets coming at me as I hid behind an inadequately-sized tree.
The day started out windy, chill, and overcast, blowing from the north. I needed to pump water to our holding tank, and also walk the waterline to level it. Soon enough I'd need to be draining the line every time I pumped so it wouldn't freeze; it's important that the line is level for it to drain properly. I found that many of the support boards that keep it level had rotted and fallen. We'd have to replace them.
The week before, my dad had replaced the recoil cord on the pump, but even with that helpful accessory, the pump was resistant to starting. After a dozen yanks and two squirts of ether it finally caught and ran smoothly. I noted the time and strolled through the woods toward the beach where I'd wait for thirteen minutes to let the pump fill the tank before I turned it off.
I was almost to the beach when I heard nearby shots and bullets strike close to me and I dropped instinctively. Out on the bay a fishing boat had crewmen on deck with guns in their hands aimed toward shore. Apparently they were getting ready for hunting season by sighting their rifles in at the trees around me.
I ducked behind the nearest tree. I didn't dare go on the beach to reveal my presence because with their fingers on the triggers they might think it was a deer and only notice it was a person after they shot me.
My handheld VHF was in my pocket and my dad demanded an answer to his first call. I fumbled for it, realizing that of course they thought the shots were from me. There were still bears around and I never went anywhere without the .44. Not to mention there shouldn't have been anyone else in the area.
In addition, the guys on the boat had just measured off three deliberate shots, apparently unaware that that's a universal signal of distress. My parents had brought all of us kids up to know that, so they would naturally assume I was signaling them. (I later found out that when they heard the first shot my mom grabbed her cane--she has severe knee problems--and started hobbling for the door. I don't know what she thought she could do, but obviously she wasn't going to let the bears have her daughter without some kind of a fight.)
"It's not me," I said into the VHF. "It's some idiots on a boat shooting into the woods."
They continued to shoot, firing off multiple rounds fairly quickly as I remained as still as possible behind the not very big tree. My dad suggested I fire off my gun to let them know I was there, but I didn't think it was a good idea to move that much. I was too close to the beach and they could see the movement and fire at it.
My dad, instead, took one of his rifles and stepped outside to shoot. It had the desired effect. The fishermen were obviously not locals and had no idea people lived in the area and they quickly put their guns away. I remained in the woods just to be safe and turned off the pump when it was time. (Because it was blowing a strong northerly with the pump situated to the south of them, they wouldn't have heard it over the sound of the waves striking their anchored boat.)
I returned home, happily un-perforated but with a serious adrenaline rush.
At this time of the year we're also busy stocking up on fuel and propane and especially winter groceries, which means taking advantage of the case sales offered by the store in Thorne Bay. The last time I was in Thorne Bay, one of the cashiers asked me how much it took for us to stock up for winter. I told her, "Not nearly as much as it used to."
When there were seven of us and we had around twenty dogs our fall stock-up amounted to probably a ton of supplies which we'd buy all at once and then have to unload and put away all at once, as well. These days we don't have as much to deal with and we make sure we do it in installments.
Of course the tides never cooperate and this time, as per usual, we wound up hauling the perishables, the produce and the frozen foods up a low tide beach. Happily, the hand truck with the oversized wheels made tackling the mud flats and rocks fairly easy. We left the cases of dry goods in the skiff until the tide came in (covering the boxes with a tarp to protect everything from the predatory ravens and crows) and then hauled the boxes of cans, jars, etc., into the house. They wound up stacked on every available surface, waiting until they could be put away...or eaten.
It's also time to work on corralling as many firewood logs for winter as possible. While my parents and I were scoping out the beaches slightly to the north of the village, my cousin Darrell approached us in his skiff with a log right inside it. He and my brother Jamie are both strapping six footers and when they find themselves without lines and logging dogs, they don't hesitate to pull a log out of the water and into their skiff and take it home.
In this case Darrell generously offered his catch to us. While myd ad pounded a logging dog in it, after Darrell rolled it back into the water, my mom chatted with Darrell, asking after his mother, her sister Shirley who used to live in the village with her husband Herb. After catching up on all the news, we went our separate ways and we had one more log to tow home behind us.
There are still many more projects to do to prepare for winter....