If, in fact, every dog has its day, a long-overlooked sled dog named Togo may finally get his moment in the sun as Alaska’s sled dog racing season reaches its climax and the 48th Iditarod Sled Dog Race gets underway with a ceremonial kickoff in downtown Anchorage.
That’s right, the often-overshadowed husky with a big heart and bigger lungs has morphed into a cinema star with “Togo,” a film from Disney+ released last December.
If that brings on a case of Iditarod fever, there are several recent mushing films worth checking out while waiting to see who makes it first to Nome.
Most Alaskans know that the 1,000-mile Iditarod race to Nome commemorates the legendary 1925 serum run, in which 20 sled-dog teams relayed life-saving drugs from Nenana to Nome, thwarting a diphtheria epidemic that was spreading through the Norton Sound town.
For years, a dog named Balto, who led musher Gunnar Kaasen’s team on the final 55-mile leg into Nome, has secured the bulk of accolades for the serum run, including a bronze statue in New York’s Central Park. Never mind the fact that musher Leonhard Seppala, led by 12-year-old Togo, toted the antitoxin 260 miles through brutal weather, much farther than any other relay team.
Nearly a century later, along comes “Togo,” streaming on Disney’s new on-demand platform, with Willem Dafoe playing Seppala. (The resemblance between the two is almost spooky.)
According to the fine book “The Cruelest Miles” by Gay and Laney Salisbury, Seppala “always argued that there’s nothing — animals, airplanes, automobiles — that can beat the dog for transportation in Alaska. He’s going to prove it or they’ll pick him up frozen in death.”
And to prove it, “the confidence Alaska sourdoughs had in Seppala, Seppala had in his lead dog.”
Tom Flynn’s Writers Guild Award-nominated script interposes serum-run scenes with flashbacks to Togo’s pesky youth and the undersized dog’s early struggles to gain Seppala’s trust.
Released at virtually the same time, “The Great Alaskan Race,” from director and star Brian Presley, has a sharper focus on the diphtheria epidemic and serum run, providing yet another star turn for Togo.
Four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King told KTVA television that while the film took “some artistic license” he overall thought it was “a wonderful story.” Reviewer Sean Means of Movie Cricket was a bit harsher:
“The movie is clearly a labor of love for Presley, but it’s often just laborious to watch. Chunks of dialogue, and even entire characters, exist to provide constant exposition that beats the lead characters’ heroism into the audience’s skulls," Means wrote.
“The action sequences, as Seppala and his dogs brave freezing weather and unstable ice to get the serum home, are energetic and well-staged, given the miniscule budget. Too often, though, “The Great Alaskan Race” is as much a slog as anything the sled dogs have to navigate.”
Togo isn’t the only canine hero captured on film recently. The 1903 Jack London novel “Call of the Wild” is back in theaters this month, with a scruffy 77-year-old Harrison Ford starring as John Thornton.
The gritty, often-brutal London tale is defanged in its latest cinematic translation to the point it’s almost corny. The huge dog is played by former UCLA gymnast Terry Notary, who wore a tight gray suit and carbon fiber arm extensions that allowed him to walk on all fours. A team of 20th Century Fox digital artists transformed Notary into a St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd mix, which takes some getting used to. Once you do, this version of Buck is often appealing, particularly to children. But tragically, he’s missing all the savagery and wildness that made Buck one of London’s most memorable characters.
At first, the producers say, Buck was supposed to be modeled after a Bernese mountain dog, but the animal’s black fur proved invisible during some of the after-dark scenes.
Then, according to the New York Times, Jessica Steele-Sanders, the wife of the movie’s director, Chris Sanders, found a rescue dog online, a possible St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd — the same mixture of breeds as London’s version of Buck. She adopted the dog (who was named Buckley), and soon, he was being scanned and photographed so that visual effects specialists could create a digital imitation.
The film earned $24.8 million the first weekend of its release, barely edged out by “Sonic the Hedgehog” (another computer-generated star) as the top box-office performer.
Although they may be the first to offer a digital dog to star, Ford and director Sanders aren’t the first Hollywood creators to put London’s tale on the silver screen. Clark Gable and Loretta Young gave it a try in 1935; so did Charlton Heston in 1972; Rick Schroder in 1993 and Christopher Lloyd in 2009.
If “Call of the Wild,” “Togo” and “The Great Alaskan Race” don’t satisfy your hunger for mushing movies, other prospects abound — though some may be hard to track down.
One of the best, telecast recently on the PBS Independent Lens series, is “Attla,” based on the life of the late and legendary Alaska sprint dog racer, George Attla of Huslia, the 10-time winner of the Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race.
“Attla” has already aired on PBS, but it’s been on a circuit of screenings across Alaska since last year. That continues March 6 in Koyuk, March 7 in Elim, March 8 in White Mountain and March 13 at the One Health, One Future convention in Fairbanks. The producers say they expect to announce details of a mid-March screening in Anchorage shortly.
Just as memorable is “Spirit of the Wind,” the 1979 movie produced by Doyon and Gana-A’Yoo that won a best picture award at the Sundance Film Festival and features a powerful and haunting score by Buffy Sainte Marie. Pius Savage is terrific as Attla, and Slim Pickens is his costar.
Finding a copy of “Spirit of the Wind” to buy is difficult, but you can get a copy at Anchorage Fur Rendezvous headquarters, 400 D St. The Anchorage Public Library has several copies available to check out for free with a valid library card, with additional copies available at libraries across the state.
Other dog-driven features:
• “The Great Alone” — A 2015 documentary exploring the life and career of four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey, who has navigated the heights of his sport and seen the depths of homelessness, cancer and failure.
• “Sled Dogs” — Not everyone is a fan of mushing. Presenting the other side of the debate is this 2016 Canadian documentary directed by Fern Levitt alleging dog cruelty among dog breeders and mushers. Its release prompted outrage among many Alaska mushers, Iditarod officials and mushing fans.
• “Snow Dogs” — Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a Miami dentist who travels to Alaska to claim his inheritance but has his plans upset by a wacky team of sled dogs in this 2002 movie that earned more than $100 million.
• “Iron Will” — Disney made this sled dog adventure. When the father of a South Dakota farm boy is accidentally killed, the young man decides to enter a sled dog race win enough prize money to save his family.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add information about borrowing copies of “Spirit of the Wild” at libraries across the state.