Set in the isolated wilderness of Nome, Alaska, with the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic still fresh in the minds of the small town’s inhabitants, the outbreak of diphtheria only seven years later is made worse by the discovery by Dr Welch (Treat Williams) that their stock of medicine has expired and they have nothing with which to treat the children. Nome Mayor, George Maynard (Brad Leland) telegraphs Governor Bone (Bruce Davison) for help but, despite his willingness to assist, the stock of medicine is a thousand miles away from them and there’s a vicious Alaskan storm in between. Their one hope seems to be Mr Thompson (Henry Thomas), a newspaper editor and aviator who is lobbying the Governor to establish an air service into Nome. This is his chance to make that happen, but the storm and harsh weather conditions prove too extreme for Thompson’s aircraft.
So now there’s just one slim chance; to use the old dog sleds known as mushers. It falls to the town’s best musher, Leonhard Seppala (Brian Presley) to hitch up his old dog Togo for what seems like an impossible mission: to travel through the raging storm, seven hundred miles to where the railway will deliver the serum.
This story promises all the beats of a terrific adventure but Presley’s screenplay opts, instead, to devote most of its time to the story of how Seppala came to live here, how his wife died in the influenza epidemic leaving him with newborn baby Sigrid (Emma Presley) and how, by 1925, he’s caught the eye of Dr Welch’s daughter Constance (Brea Bee) who spends most of the film nursing the sick children (including, of course, Sigrid) and being attracted to Seppala (which seems to mostly manifest itself in trying to get him to come to church on Sundays).
Once the mission begins (forty minutes into the film’s eighty-minute running time) you might expect the action to shift to the efforts of Seppala and his huskies against the harsh Alaskan elements. But, other than long shots of the dog sled making its way through snow storm, and one lacklustre CGI snow mishap the action sits mostly in the side-stories of the negotiation between Governor Bone and Mr Thompson regarding the use of Thompson’s aircraft, and numerous scenes of worried parents juxtaposed against the Mayor and the Doctor frequently reminding us that ‘time is running out’. There seems to be an assumption here that lots of intercutting between these characters who sit outside the adventurous heart of the story will somehow build tension and suspense and distract us from the lack of actual adventure happening out on the mission itself. That assumption proves to be false.
The progress of the mission is conveyed to us by the use of an ongoing radio report by newsman Harry Davenport (Nolan North) who is shot against a backdrop of newsreel footage from the time. In a way it seems to be trying to act as a stand-in for the constant barrage of news updates we’re used to in the twenty-first century. It’s an interesting idea but ends up as a hokey device that relies on telling instead of showing and herein lies the main problem with the film. It’s almost all exposition and not enough action, especially for a story as visceral as this. The upshot is that cast of good actors are hamstrung by being stuck in static, dialogue heavy scenes in nice sets that evoke the era but not the urgency of the situation. Add to that the almost complete lack of any character development for the two canine heroes of the tale; Togo and Balto (we spend next to no screentime with them and so it’s hard to feel anything for them as they struggle to save the children) and you wind up with a story that seems more concerned with the facts and the details than it is with any emotional engagement it might give the audience. In short, it’s a film that is too much reaction and not enough action.
If you stick around for the credits, there is some great archival footage and imagery of the real Leonhard Seppala and many of the other key characters in the story and, of course, Togo and Balto, the two key huskies that are crucial to the story. Ironically, these images almost tell the story in a more engaging way than the film does.