Jules Vincent (marvelously played by Steward Granger) is a happy-go-lucky French trapper making his living off some of the most dangerous country in Canada. He comes to town one day to replenish his supplies. While there, he rescues a kitten from a bad-tempered collie and an unhappy part-Chippewa woman (Cyd Charisse) from the saloon where she works after gallantly protecting her from a drunken jerk named Brody. The next morning, Jules sets out for his wilderness home with both the kitten and Indian woman as passengers in his canoe. Claiming to be a good hand with a paddle, Brody convinces Jules to take him, too. But Brody’s presence gives rise to danger that threatens everyone in the canoe, and when Jules, the Indian woman, and the kitten arrive at the settlement where the Indian woman is to rejoin her tribe, Brody is mysteriously absent. Knowing the law will come after him, Jules flees to the wilderness rather than chance a trial where his fate will be determined by city dwellers (“ribbon clerks,” he calls them) who can’t possibly grasp the perils of life in the wilderness.
Constable Pedley (Wendell Corey) is a good Mountie looking forward to a furlough. Instead, he’s sent into the wild North Country to bring Jules in for Brody’s murder. The faithful Pedley sets out just before the weather turns nasty. He catches up to Jules when Jules stops his flight to the wilderness to care for half-frozen Father Simon (Morgan Farley) who’s hiked out to convince Jules to turn himself in. Father Simon’s crazed and depleted condition, leading to his death, portends the trouble to come. As Constable Pedley and Jules start on a perilous dogsled journey back to civilization, the trapper bides his time, knowing that in this corner of the world Pedley is out of his depth. He plays head games with the Mountie and allows him to become lost, expecting to escape when Pedley loses control of the situation. Harsh weather, lack of sleep, getting caught in a bear trap, and becoming lost do indeed push Pedley to the edge, but when a pack of wolves attacks the two men and Pedley is nearly killed he loses his mind. At last, conditions are perfect for Jules to escape, but knowing he is responsible for Pedley’s unfortunate situation Jules risks everything to take the helpless man he has been calling “BÃ©bÃ© € to safety. Even after they make it to town and join up with Jules’ Indian companion and the kitten, Constable Pedley remains in their care in childlike state, unable to live life as a whole man. To make things right, Jules once more risks his freedom €”and his life €”in a dramatic bid to snap Pedley out of shock.
Filmed in Idaho and released in 1952, The Wild North is a very engaging wilderness adventure with surprise twists and turns of a quality you don’t see much anymore. That is, rather than being manipulative of the audience, the plot turns arise naturally from the main character’s menschlichkeit. I liked this movie a lot, especially for the human nature story it tells. Constable Pedley’s unsettling fate runs counter to the usual €œalways gets his man € Dudley Doright Mountie stereotype and might strike some as odd. But having read Canadian prairie literature from the early 1900s, I find Pedley’s succumbing to the relentless pressure of natural forces in line with common themes of the times. Many stories from that era display the trouble British-stock settlers ran up against trying to tame the wildlands and voice their dismay at how they felt it dismantled them, their minds as well as their domiciles, brick by brick. The kind of hysteria that grips Pedley can be compared to Adela Quested’s becoming unhinged in the Marabar Caves in E. M. Forster’s Passage to India. But what Jules does to help Pedley €”enemy to his freedom €”makes for a stunning story about the human adventure €”how bravery and human decency can get people across rugged psychological terrain as well as practical know-how and confidence born of experience can get them across trying physical ground. Viewers will enjoy the many fine touches put to the script and filming, including intriguing scenes where the kitten appears.
Not bad at all for a 58-year-old movie. A good application of human drama in a wilderness setting, with animals in several supporting roles–just how I like it. Granger and Corey both do excellent jobs with their roles, Granger as the Frenchman who knows a good adventure when he sees it and Corey as the Mountie who knows his duty but faces overwhelming odds carrying it out. The Wild North is a good idea generator for nature writers looking to write fiction about humans in a natural setting. And it’s more invested in the audience and the human condition than many modern flicks. Kudos to the German shepherd who plays the evil, skulking wolf who brings down Constable Pedley. Or maybe I should say, “Cujos”. I’d like to see this one remade by a director/filmmaker who has can grok the happy complexities of Jules’ a-few-notches-higher-than-Everyman character and avoid stripping him down to a post-modern, isolated, conflicted, Dark Knight of the North.