'Iron Will' is a gee whiz '50s adventure movie from start to finish

January 14, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In some respects, "Iron Will" seems to have been beamed forward into our decade by a time machine located somewhere in the '50s. It's a rugged, almost chauvinistic celebration of American get-up-and-go that never acknowledges, even implicitly, that oIn some respects, "Iron Will" seems to have been beamed forward into our decade by a time machine located somewhere in the '50s. It's a rugged, almost chauvinistic celebration of American get-up-and-go that never acknowledges, even implicitly, that our get-up-and-go got up and went. It might be characterized by words begin with G: gusto, guts, gumption, gee whiz and gosharootie, though, er, never G-spot.

Its structure is what's iron about it, a sturdy-legged melodrama built around a race and always plunging forward with a minimum of fuss and distraction, and not a scene wasted on (shudder) "feelings." It should have starred the young, plucky Audie Murphy, fresh from the European theater of operations, with Dan Duryea as the cynical news hound and Edward Arnold as the corrupt industrialist.

So it's no surprise to learn that the principal author of the film is John Michael Hayes, a screenwriter from the old days of Hollywood who had a successful career writing such films as "Rear Window," "Peyton Place" and "Red Ball Express" in the '50s -- after requisite stops in newspapering and the Army (but not film school). Why, he was even permitted to call Hitchcock "Mr. Hitchcock."

Maybe the time machine was a desk drawer where the piece languished, gathering dust through the eons until Hayes, now a professor of film at Dartmouth, heard Disney was interested in playing that old studio tune -- jingo bells, jingo bells, jingo all the way. Or maybe he wrote it last year and only pretended it was 1954. At any rate . . . ready or not, here it is.

Snow. Dog sleds. Ice breaking. Blizzards. Wolves. Saving the farm. Buying the farm. (But never farming the farm.) Bearded men snapping at each other. Frostbite. Parkas. Jack London, phone home.

The story is built around a 500-mile dog-sled race from Winnipeg, Canada, to St. Paul, Minn., in the year 1917, over some desperately treacherous terrain, and not a McDonald's in sight. The event is engineered in the spirit of Canadian-American friendship by a gaggle of industrialists with a $10,000 first prize. And each big shot sponsored a corporate entity in the form of an Inuit, Swedish or Norwegian team -- except of course for a lone American youth out of Nebraska who'd come up to the wintry north with his dogs to win the race to forestall foreclosure and raise college tuition.

It's purportedly based on a true story, though you'd never believe it from the evidence on the screen. That's not to say the movie is a failure. Quite the contrary. On its own terms, or as a piece of '50s kitsch lovingly preserved, the movie grips in the old-fashioned melodramatic PG-rated way. If you can find a '50s teen-ager, he'll love it. Good luck with any kid wearing an earring.

Mackenzie Astin plays Will Stoneman, the gritty farm boy who takes on a raft of professional sled jockeys, all of whom are flamboyantly furrin -- i.e., foreign. The most vicious of them is a stump-fingered Norwegian maniac who appears to have wandered in from some Strindberg drama about howling angst in the bitter wilderness. This guy is so crazy he'd eat his dogs if he had to -- unless they eat him first.

There's another pack involved, too: newspaper reporters, from the high days of yellow journalism. Kevin Spacey plays the ironic American cynic Harry Kingsley, who makes Will a household word as a way of getting himself on the front page, while at the same time not quite ever believing in Will's virtue.

One amusing touch: Spacey's Kingsley works for the Kane News Syndicate, which has to be an homage to Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane," whose hero Charles Foster Kane also headed a news syndicate. It was probably inserted as the only way director Charles Haid would get himself mentioned in the same paragraph with Orson Welles.

In "Iron Will," it's not the words, it's the tune. That is to say that although Astin is suitably stoic and determined, and Spacey suitably ironic and amused, the real appeal of the film is its no-frills approach to storytelling. Haid never lets himself get distracted from the finish line: no fretwork, no gilding, no psychology interrupts. It is a movie literally gone to the dogs.

"Iron Will"

Starring Mackenzie Astin and Kevin Spacey

Directed by Charles Haid

Released by Walt Disney

PG

5/8

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