Though my pretty wife would never put up with the long winters and those extended periods where the sun refuses to rise, Alaska has always intrigued me and felt like my kind of place. There’s a sense of self-reliance about the people, a remoteness which is especially appealing to a wannabe hermit like yours truly, and I absolutely love cold weather. As far as those times when the sun won’t rise, I’m firmly on record as being in favor of anything that cuts down the glare on my plasma TV.
Until Governor Palin and family decided to take us on a tour of their beloved home state, the only way I knew of to get a feel for Alaska was through the movies, the medium that taught me most everything (which some would say explains a lot). So if you’re looking for something to tide you over until tomorrow night’s debut of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” on TLC, here are five pretty memorable films set in the, uh, Upper One. Considering how few films actually take place in Alaska, this is a pretty impressive list.
1. North to Alaska (1960) – One of those raucous John Wayne films that’s far from a classic but impossible not to like. Ernie Kovacs, Stewart Granger, Fabian, and the gorgeous Capucine provide excellent support for the Duke, who’s in fine comedic form in a beautifully photographed widescreen color production that probably got no closer to Alaska than I ever will. And of course there’s also the great Johnny Horton’s unforgettable title song.
2. Insomnia (2002) – Director Christopher Nolan does the impossible in getting what is likely to be the last great performance out of Al Pacino’s now wildly over-the-top acting career. Another stunningly photographed production that thrusts you deep in the heart of Alaska’s desolate beauty — and there’s a terrific mystery to boot.
3. Never Cry Wolf (1983) – The movie that made me fall in love with Alaska. Charles Martin Smith should have won the Oscar for what I still consider to be one of the finest one man cinematic shows of the last thirty years, but what a great (and true) story. The beauty, the solitude, the opportunity to run around buck naked — how could anyone resist?
4. Runaway Train (1985) – Still the greatest existential action film ever made and what a cast. The Mighty Jon Voight and The Mighty Eric Roberts have never been better in this relentlessly exciting nail biter about a couple of escaped convicts forced to exorcise their demons and discover their own humanity as they hurtle towards an unforgettable climax. Special props go to the vastly underrated John P. Ryan (LexG knows of who I speak) as an obsessed prison warden. He was quite possibly the only actor at the time who could make us believe that he was any kind of worthy opponent to Voight and Roberts.
5. Limbo (1999) – Remember when indie movies didn’t suck like blackholes? Writer/director John Sayles sets a marvelous story in one of those small towns that tells us that Alaska is the place where people go to guard their secrets. The breathtaking and breathtakingly talented Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays a damaged lounge singer who’s working overtime to pass that damage on to her daughter until she meets a local handyman played with gentle masculinity by David Strathairn. And just when it seems as though the two of them might save each other, the story takes a wild turn into the wild.
People complain about the ending, but I think it’s perfect. The central story about the three central relationships has been beautifully resolved and therefore the ultimate fate of the characters is meaningless. A big bonus is a touchingly performed soundtrack sung by Mastrantonio that includes unforgettable covers of Tom Waits “(Looking For) the Heart of Saturday Night” and Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day.”