Starring: John Wayne, Ernie Kovacs, Stewart Granger, Capucine

Director: Henry Hathaway
Released: 1960

Mood: If you’ve had one hell of a miserable time lately and the only cure you can imagine is one hell of a funny brawling Western.


North to Alaska was an extremely pleasant surprise during an extremely unpleasant work week. This movie is SO FUNNY, and not at all what I expected.


I honestly only put it on because I have somehow acquired a LOT of John Wayne DVDs over the years, and watching this one put me closer to finishing a boxed set. I like checking things off.


But everything about North to Alaska is just so fresh compared to other Westerns of that era – or for any era. It’s set in 1901 instead of the 1880s. It’s about the Nome gold rush as opposed to the more popular (yet shorter) Klondike gold rush. And John Wayne is a LOGGER!


I mean, he’s still dressed like a cowboy. And it’s all filmed in California, and he doesn’t do any actual lumberjackery. But there’s one great pole climbing scene at a logger picnic, and that truly delighted my logger-sports-loving Canadian heart.


If you need a good laugh, this movie will 100% do the trick.


photo of the north to alaska DVD on a copper-stained wooden deck


North to Alaska begins in Nome, Alaska. Sam McCord (John Wayne) has a super successful mining partnership with George Pratt (Stewart Granger) and his little brother Billie (Fabian).


  • Fun Fact #1: Heartthrob singer Fabian was 30 years younger than Stewart Granger, but was cast for the same reason Wayne cast Frankie Avalon in The Alamo – because he saw how Ricky Nelson’s appearance in Rio Bravo drew young people to see the movie.

Within the first 10 minutes you get a whole-saloon brawl of epic proportions. Everyone is punching everybody else, tables and chairs are broken, barrels start spraying, a con man (Ernie Kovacs) steals money from the abandoned poker table only to have it stolen by a dog… and the entire time, there’s an old fotoplayer merrily pumping out tunes.


George sends Sam to Seattle to buy some mining equipment, and to bring back his long distance French love interest. Before Sam leaves, the same con man tries to get his paws on Sam’s seemingly bottomless satchel of money. This is important for later.


When Sam gets to Seattle, he discovers George’s supposed girlfriend is actually married. Despite being anti-marriage himself, Sam feels bad for his pal and the natural solution is to bring George a prostitute named Angel (Capucin). One French gal is the same as the next, right?


But Angel thinks she’s coming to Alaska to marry Sam, Billie instantly falls in lust with Angel, Sam is in mega denial that he has feelings, and meanwhile that con man was doing some serious conning!


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


If you’ve read my reviews, you know I live for a good Western brawl. And North to Alaska has THREE brawls, each better than the last.


The second brawl involves a busted sluice pouring water all over everyone, so that water basically become an adversary in the fight. The final street brawl includes mud, goats, a group of religious performers, and a frickin’ seal because why not have a seal watching a brawl?


There are even moments that look genuinely messy, like John Wayne sliding so far in the mud that he lands under a horse that gets spooked and appears to step on him, and Wayne’s toupee falling off in the same fight so you get a rare glimpse of his bald crown. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, it’s so good.


  • Fun Fact #2: Wayne’s legendary height was bolstered by wigs, which he began openly wearing in 1948, and by lifts in his boots, which many co-stars including Capucine reported in interviews or books. Wayne was already around 6’3 or 6’4, but it’s possible he wore the lifts to balance out his increasing girth. Entire forums of fans vehemently deny that he wore them.

Each of North to Alaska’s fight sequences is enjoyably creative, utilizing a couple of unique elements that elevate it beyond the standard punch-out. The whole movie is like that – there’s so much action, so much comedy, and multiple subplots that seamlessly carry the story forward at a fantastic pace.


Wayne surprised the hell out of me in this movie. You get all of his usual physicality and bravado, but you also get him pulling these zany, comical faces, doing bit like crossing his eyes and falling over drunk. It’s great entertainment.


Ernie Kovacs is a scene stealer as Frankie Cannon. He’s perfectly smarmy and weaselly, which is exactly what you want in a bad guy role that’s more comedic than cruel. I stumbled upon this hilarious video of Kovacs poking fun at Westerns, it’s a must-see.


Stewart Granger is fun to watch as George, easily holding his own with Wayne. Capucine is charming as Angel. Mickey Shaughnessy is memorable as the drunk prospector who is way too easy to manipulate. There’s really only one weaker performance here, and it’s Fabian as Billie. His accent is so all over the map that it’s wandering into regions that don’t even exist. But it still works, because you’re meant to laugh AT Billie, not really with him.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


When director Henry Hathaway made North to Alaska he was 30 years into his career, which included True Grit and segments in How the West Was Won, and you can really feel that expertise in every single scene and how smoothly the story rolls along.


  • Fun Facts #3 & 4: North to Alaska started filming with an incomplete script, and required quite a bit of improv to keep it comical and character-driven rather than ‘another cliché gold rush movie’. John Wayne is an uncredited co-director.

On a more somber note, the movie’s self-titled theme song was performed by country star Johnny Horton, who unfortunately died in a car crash just eight days before the movie premiered. Still, North to Alaska made a decent profit at the box office, and has solid high-middle ratings on most sites. It’s not dramatic Oscar-contender material, but it definitely delivers on good times.


This may not be among the John Wayne movies his diehard fans rank in the top five or even the top 10, but it’s officially now one of MY favourite Wayne Westerns alongside The War Wagon. And that is high praise right there.