'The Great Alaskan Race': Film Review

Courtesy of P12 Films
You feel every mile.
10/25/2019

Brian Presley directed, wrote and stars in this adventure drama based on the real-life story of dog sledders who braved traveling hundreds of miles in sub-zero temperatures to bring medicine to diphtheria victims.

You'd think that the true story of a legendary dog run across Alaska's frozen tundra nearly 100 years ago to get lifesaving medicine to diphtheria victims would make for compelling drama. Unfortunately, actor tyro director/screenwriter Brian Presley lacks the filmmaking chops to make the tale come alive in his feature debut. Although earnest to a fault and certainly fulfilling its goal of being family-friendly entertainment, The Great Alaskan Race ultimately proves less exciting and not nearly as adorable as Balto, the 1995 animated film inspired by the same events.

Filmed in a wintry Colorado subbing for Alaska, the semi-fictionalized drama revolves around Leonhard Seppala, one of the mushers who handles the longest and most treacherous part of the run. As the clunky narration at the beginning informs us, Seppala married an Innuit woman with whom he had a young daughter, Sigrid (Emma Presley, the filmmaker's real-life offspring). When Seppala's wife dies shortly thereafter, her demise is signified in hoary fashion by a shot of a light bulb burning out. 

After a diphtheria outbreak occurs in Nome in 1925, the city finds itself desperately in need of antitoxin. Being the dead of winter, there are few means of bringing the vital medicine in from Anchorage, some 1,0000 miles away. A newspaper publisher (Henry Thomas) implores the state's governor (Bruce Davison, once again relegated to a role beneath his talents) to send the medicine via airplane, although aviation is still in its early stages. "Aren't you tired of playing second fiddle to the lower 48?" he asks the insecure politician. But the governor decides to use the old-fashioned method of dog-sledding, despite the obstacle of those involved having to travel hundreds of miles in an unprecedently short time under dangerously cold conditions.

In real life, Seppala, who was considered the best "musher" in Alaska, did volunteer to be part of the team of drivers for what became known as "The Serum Run." But the film attempts to up the dramatic stakes even further by having his daughter Sigrid contracting the disease, making his participation all the more personal. While Seppala, accompanied by his faithful dog Togo, and the rest of the men embark on the treacherous journey in sub-zero temperatures, we see local physician Dr. Welch (Treat Williams, bringing his usual impeccable professionalism) attending to his desperately ill patients, many of whom, like Sigrid, are children. The doctor's daughter, and head nurse, Constance (Brea Bee), also happens to be the church's choir director, whose obvious interest in single father Seppala provides a sappy romantic undercurrent to the proceedings.

The movie's heavy-handed narrative elements would matter less if the filmmaking had been more technically proficient. But Presley, while delivering a respectable, clearly physically taxing performance, might have been too ambitious in selecting this elaborate adventure drama for his directorial debut. The dog-run scenes, which should be the most thrilling in the picture, are sluggish and poorly rendered, often visually incoherent behind all the blinding fake snow being thrown at the camera. And the frequent intercutting to the stilted dramatic scenes continually saps the tension. To be fair, there are some effective moments: James Russo, playing a grizzled veteran musher, nearly steals the film with his brief monologue in which he warns of the dangers of running dogs at either "40 above or 40 below."

Contextual information is provided in recurring black-and-white sequences in which a fast-talking radio reporter delivers breathless news accounts about the dire situation. It would have been a reasonably effective device, except that the amateurish execution makes it come across like a Saturday Night Live sketch.

It's no spoiler to reveal that the medicine arrived in time. Or, especially considering the film's title, that the courageous exploits of the dog-sledders have been celebrated since 1973 in the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Archival footage and photographs of Seppala and his dog Togo are shown during the end credits, and have the ironic effect of being more compelling than the dramatization we've just witnessed. 

Production company: Rebel Road Entertainment
Distributor: P12 Films
Cast: Brian Presley, Treat Williams, Brad Leland, Henry Thomas, Bruce Davison, James Russo, Brea Bee, Emma Presley, Nolan North
Director-screenwriter: Brian Presley
Producers: Brian Presley, Mark David, Will Wallace
Executive producers: Jose Pablo Cantillo, Warren Davis, Allison Whitmer, Erin Presley, Sean Leigh Hart, Timothy Cavanaugh
Director of photography: Mark David
Production designer: Jena Serbu
Editors: Gabriel Ordonez, Mark David, Brian Presley
Composer: John Koutselinis
Costume designer: Rebecca Bertot
Casting: Melissa Wulfemeyer

Rated PG, 104 minutes