Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Benjamin Glazer, Joseph Farnham, and Waldemar Young (based on the novel by Robert W. Service)
When Clarence Brown came to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1926, he'd been promised a project that interested him intensely, an adaptation of Robert W. Service's 1910 novel about the Klondike Gold Rush, The Trail of '98. Brown, by now a Hollywood veteran, probably knew better than to believe that promise, and presumably he'd have taken the news that he'd be doing something else in stride. Over his career, Brown would maintain a reputation as a solid company man. Yet one of the very few times Brown ever outright refused an assignment was his very first, an adaptation of Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, already in production, that MGM was having trouble with. His refusal was not based on the subject matter (though if he had done The Mysterious Island, it would've been the biggest outlier of his career). Rather, it was because it had belonged to his New Jersey mentor, Maurice Tourneur, who'd gotten to MGM ahead of him. Tourneur had not had a good time of it, and had been quit-fired from the studio, and Brown blanched at the prospect of replacing his friend and teacher.
So instead MGM gave him Flesh and the Devil; Brown, at least afforded an option, took the film without further hemming or hawing. Whether he was actually happy about it or not kind of doesn't matter. Flesh and the Devil just worked. It was an epochal success, defining his career for the next decade and change. It confirmed that Clarence Brown would be The Director of Sensitively Tragic and Frequently Erotic Romances About Fallen Women, even if what he'd set out to do was a movie about hardscrabble adventure in the Yukon. I'm not sure if the Service novel itself even has a female lead, or female characters to speak of at all, or if they invented one just for this movie so you wouldn't be faced with the prospect of spending an entire film solely looking at the same dozen unkempt men with dirty beards trudging around in snow and mud.
After Flesh and the Devil, MGM gave Brown his reward: The Wind. He pawned that off on Victor Sjostrom, claiming that he couldn't handle the technical and physical challenges of an arduous location shoot, and though Sjostrom came out of it with a splendid film, he did not, in fact, have the best time of it himself in the desert. Of course, Brown was lying through his teeth, considering what project he was intent on wheedling out of MGM. But when Brown got what he wanted, Brown got his punishment too.
Starting in earnest in late 1926 and exacting a great price—its human toll was tragically high—The Trail of '98 premiered in early 1928, the final cut only completed mere hours before it screened (the sole editing credit went to George Lively, but everybody in the department had a hand in it). This at last put an end its long and tortured path to theaters. It's noticeable, incidentally, that Trail of '98 does not actually have a credited producer, which indicates how it spiraled off into disaster, and how Brown barely rescued a film out of the footage he and plethora of second-unit directors had obtained, which, for various reasons, nobody especially wanted to take credit for. (It didn't help that they assumed it would lose money: costing an eyebrow-raising $1.5 million, the surprise was it did earn its money back, but just barely.)
Brown soon soured on it himself, but it's an interesting detour to his career, that, in truth, leaned heavily on the personal ambitions Brown wouldn't get up the nerve to pursue again for a while, and not in any real sense till he took over The Yearling, which still doesn't really compare. This was hubris. MGM wanted an outdoor epic, and so did he. Allowed to define the size and dimensions of his challenge, he began pushing the limits of what even Hollywood in the 1920s was capable of achieving. It engaged his love for location shooting and his background as an engineer—an endless series of logistical and technological problems he could solve. He must've been aware of the production travails of one of the most successful films of the last several years, which incidentally also happened to be about the Klondike boom, but he ignored all the warnings already sounded by Charles Chaplin's The Gold Rush, which Chaplin had attempted to film on location in northern California during the winter months of early 1924, managing to scrape almost three whole minutes of usable footage out of it. It indicates what level of blue-sky insanity that must've gripped Brown and MGM that it was a compromise to shoot the majority of the film in winter in the Coloradan Rockies, and not actually in the Yukon. Just the majority, mind you: a bunch of it was still shot in the Yukon.
The story Brown was supposed to be telling, however, is simple: in 1897, the first ships loaded with Yukon gold arrive in San Francisco, bringing back men like Jack Locasto (Harry Carey Sr.), I believe a composite of several historical figures but with all their negative qualities and none of their good ones, to spread the Klondike gospel. The news spreads like wildfire across America, triggering a greedy, desperate wave of migrants to give up their pitiful lives in pursuit of gilded dreams—Lars Petersen (Karl Dane), Salvation Jim (Tully Marshall), Samuel Foote, described appropriately in the credits as "the Worm" (George Cooper), and many more, too many to easily list. But the faces that emerge most prominently from the shipment of hungry humanity that takes the first available steamship to Skagway in the Alaska Territory are Larry (Ralph Forbes), who stows away, and the woman he meets when she finds him hiding in her room, Berna (Dolores Del Rio). Smitten immediately, they have cute little dates under the unwatchful eye of her old, blind, and frequently-sleepy grandfather (Cesare Gravina), the two of them along for the ride with her aunt and uncle (Emery Fitzroy and Tenen Holtz) as employee and dependent, respectively, who intend to set up a restaurant in the boomtown that's sprung up and been named Dawson City. We follow their travails up the Chilkoot Pass and beyond till finally they arrive in the Klondike and find, essentially... nothing. Larry refuses to give up, effectively abandoning Berna to return to his stretch of dirt for one last try at a bonanza. But Locasto has had his eye on her for a year, and by the time Larry returns, Berna has had some choices made for her.
Larry doesn't even know Locasto's cheated him out of his claim, too, and, now that I think about it, I'm not sure he ever actually finds that out; maybe that's a weakness of the drafted and re-drafted scenario and everyone just forgot, maybe that's a flaw in the way Brown constructed the movie, or maybe it doesn't actually matter because the film isn't truly about finding a happy ending, at least not solely in the form of worthless rocks dug out of the ground that make men go mad; or if in a strictly literal sense, it is, it still doesn't feel like it. For a movie that flew out of control, it's very focused on what it means to be about. It has omissions that could raise some hackles: for one thing, it basically doesn't know or care who the Tlingit and Tagish even are; in fairness, it doesn't even really seem to mind if you forget that the Klondike is in Canada (or that this "Dawson City" is rather more indebted to the hive of scum and villainy that became of Skagway in Alaska, rather than the notably orderly and very Canadian town ruled by the Mounties in the Yukon); and this streamlining of context might well be by design. It's a shockingly cynical movie in some respects, almost irritatingly moralizing in others, but (clichéd film writing inbound!) it is entirely concerned with Americanness, and that particular strain of the American Dream that manifests in the willingness of broken fools to believe in miracles, to risk everything for the opportunity to keep living in a comforting fantasy for just a little while longer—that fantasy coming down to the idea that they're the smart ones, the lucky ones, the ones who'll walk away rich, laughing while everyone else keeps struggling in the dirt. Not for nothing (and not, for that matter, inaccurately) does Brown lean on imagery of gambling as virtually the only cultural product of the prospectors.
True then, true today, though as we've become rather more effete as a society, we do it with the blockchain and other multi-level marketing scams; and that effeteness perhaps explains how crypto junk managed to go on so long, despite my initial assumption that if I could be hearing about it on the news, it must have already entered the terminal rube phase of the scam. That's the kind of swindle that people who aren't starving invest in. The gold rushes burned themselves out sooner, and harder, but then stampeders on the trail represent true desperation, and that's the other thing about Trail of '98: for all it shakes its head at the stampeders, it doesn't despise them. The very worst person in the movie—his parasitism played for laughs until it isn't, and when he turns he somehow manages to be even worse than the mustachioed rapist villain—still has some sympathy attached to him; he's the only one whose death comes with a fantasy of life, taunting him—maybe even comforting him—with the pretty dreams that brought him here in the first place. However bad he is, you still don't necessarily want him to be eaten alive by dogs. (Even the mustachioed rapist villain gets a fun, personable, whimsical scene where he wreaks his vengeance on the untold number of beans he's had to eat for the last six months while working his claim.) In the end, Dawson City burns—maybe that's a spoiler, but Mounties aren't firemen or code inspectors and Dawson City did burn, three or four times, actually—and we're promised that it was rebuilt, with "hard work and industry." Well, it survived, though in 1928 or even in 2022, you could just about fit the whole of Dawson City into the average theater that showed this film; but it's a metaphor anyway. This is the irritatingly moralizing part, sure, but it's a film well-made to convey such a message, and it's still not quite over: it concludes on a button that I reckon was intended to be a cutesy, corny joke, and it is, with one of the survivors, now seemingly too rich to care, excited over the prospect of the new gold strike in Nome, explaining that the fun of gold is finding it. But instead of being just a cutesy, corny joke, it feels ambivalent in ways that presage the best Brown films still to come, scowling at a fever that never actually breaks but somehow unable to avoid admiring the hungry, striving human spirit beneath it.
Albeit less frequently than the "this slut's been punished enough" tales that comprise much of Brown's career, and which MGM's factory churned out prodigiously in the late 20s and 30s, Brown would often return to these themes of pioneer times and pious Americana. Yet, more fundamentally, and not always identified as specifically American, he was a powerful teller of stories about the human need to take on struggle for its own sake as much as any articulated goal. Meanwhile, within the technician who'd given into that same megalomania and soon regretted it, we find the first stirrings of Brown the director whose scope could expand and meander beyond his plot to try to encompass, or artificially conjure, a whole way of life. These films, the more unconventional ones, were not so common in Brown's filmography, though they were some of his best. He'd return to this mode much later and with maudlin sentiment born of magical realism in 1943's The Human Comedy; more proximately, he did a downright variation on a theme in 1933's underseen, excellent Night Flight. Across these three he mythologized communities as divergent as contemporary smalltown America, an aeropost outfit in Argentina, and the suffering prospectors of the Yukon. And yet it was as a technician, overcoming the technical challenges of a mountain of half-random footage and a screenplay consisting of nothing but the stockest of characters, that compelled him to develop the impressionistic style he first used here, repurposing the "main" scenes of the Forbes/Del Rio/Carey melodrama almost entirely as a framework upon which to hang something more interesting, a free-floating collage of a journey to nowhere. Confronted with the requirement to introduce his stock central and supporting characters in a lump, for example, Brown says fine, and throws in a bunch of full-on non-characters, reducing the individual importance of any given character even further.
And even that said, I don't think he scrimps on that melodrama, really, as opposed to just finding it too instrumental to be the story here, which is interesting in that it really is such a Quintessential Clarence Brown Melodrama. He did not like Forbes, and thought he sucked. Yet he necessarily has to come to predominate in the back third, and Brown still gives Forbes the single best close-up in the film: having just promised Berna he would abandon his search to take her back to civilization, his prospecting partner whispers in his ear and the camera slowly (even imperceptibly at first) moves in, till suddenly it's just Forbes's face, his blazing eyes, and the lunatic cartoon ear-to-ear grin that's spread across the whole bottom half of the frame. If the "best close-up" is not Forbes, then it's Del Rio, arriving in a nervy rape scene that flips from Berna's point-of-view to Locasto's, putting us in the uncomfortable position of witnessing her overwhelmed terror in full without, I think, actually changing our subject position. Certainly, if you don't like overenunciated silent film acting, you'd probably call both these acting beats camp, but if that's the case it's your fault to be this deep into a long silent film review. Anyway, it's a badass film: it's the kind of movie where the central love story can climax with a man literally catching fire on camera and burning down the town, while in the meantime Karl Dane has already flown into a rage and pushed his whole body through a wall to get at a crooked assayer.
Which is to say it's the kind of film tilted toward imagery to bowl you over with high-impact fragments of life in the Yukon, erupting unbidden out of the screen. It is, anyway, how that first hour is effectively a series of montages that begins by flying across a map of the continental United States and cherrypicking our named characters while the superimposed exhortations GOLD! KLONDIKE! GOLD! echo maniacally, and continues with madcap stunts even before the dissolve-heavy observation of the dreary, deadly, wintry slog through marshes and mountains, which itself is still before the simultaneously inspiring and stupefying vision of the march up the "golden steps" of the Chilkoot Pass. Even the studio stuff can prompt questions of how art director Cedric Gibbons did it (I'm not sure quite how he managed that mountain backdrop with telephone wires in front of it); the effects shots to render avalanches are, of course, noticeably effects shots, but astonishingly good for 1928; and there is not a shot more Old Hollywood than the one where you realize, my God, it's not an effects shot, and to render a bustling camp for a thousand people on the riverside they simply built a bustling camp for a thousand people on the riverside. Hardship, dull or keen, is impressed on you in just about every frame, even in the intertitles, with an effect of "snowy wind" blowing through them, reflecting the weather of the scene; it's even present in the comic relief scenes, which are mostly "funny" though it's perverse and unsettling to see the human attempt to normalize hiking hundreds of miles back and forth across a mountain, fifty pounds of pack at a time, with dumb jokes. (It came with a synch score, the one thing here that's actually badly-done: it practically occupies only one stultifying mood for like the whole first hour, and I daresay "genial whimsy" is not usually the correct one.) It's a movie of brutalizing enormity, then, arguably even numbing, getting at the sheer grimness of existence upon the trail.
I categorically reject the proposition that misery makes a movie better, even if the movie might be about misery; but it must have informed something of these long sequences of communal endurance. Maybe MGM should've seen the horrible irony coming, however, for Trail of '98 could be the deadliest American film production of all time. (That's a controversial title, of course, dependent upon how you apportion blame. For example, I hold The Conqueror more against the U.S. government than I do its makers.) But Brown estimated—estimated!—five or six fatalities, with who knows how many human illnesses and injuries and dead animals. I do not like this, and truthfully I'd prefer it had Trail of '98 not been made at all. It helps that Brown did not cause any of the fatalities with outright recklessness: there were two illness deaths, which the Colorado winter Brown inflicted upon them caused, but the major catastrophe was a river rapids stunt, claiming four, and negligently overseen by one of the several second-unit directors in the Yukon. It's not a mystery, then, why Brown came to the conclusion he'd made nothing to be proud of, since he hadn't. (I assume if the deaths were still in the movie, it'd be more infamous than it is, but man, I'm not certain they aren't.) Even so, the object he cobbled together is extraordinarily effective, and I'm torn between punishing it for its arrogance, and saluting those who gave their lives for a pointless dream in tribute to those who gave their lives for a pointless dream.