Classic Cinema Tuesday: Trail of 98

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There is nothing in our modern society that was quite like the gold rushs of the late 19th century. The naivete needed to journey to a far off land just to rough it for a year or two in the hopes of getting rich in itself is hard to find these days. These people who decided to do this at this time endured terrible hardships that today is no big deal. It would take months to get to a destination that now takes an airplane an afternoon to reach. Add to this rampant disease, extreme roughing it where potable water is sometimes a luxury, unfamiliar and unexplored territory, hostile climate, and the huge chance that you will walk away with nothing is enough to sympathize with these foolhardy dreamers. In 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike area of Alaska and by 1898 thousands of people from the west coast were marching towards the area in the hopes of finding a lot more. This silent picture, made only twenty years after this massive event took place, documents just how rough and tumble these must be in order to do such a thing.

The first scene of the movie is the news of gold being found in Alaska reaching San Francisco. We see a couple of minor characters all pick up their things, leave their loved ones behind and go in hopes of getting rich. But our main focus is on Berna, a young poor girl tasked with following her aunt, uncle and father into the cold in order to work at their restaurant. While she is escorting her blind father into their small room on a boat bound for Alaska, she meets a handsome stowaway, Larry, and they immediately fall in love. They both make friends with several people on the boat and Larry sets up a share with a couple of them. Meanwhile Locasto, a man who already made his fortune on another gold rush and wants to make a second on this one, notices Berna and is determined to have her for himself. Once the boat has landed, everyone except for Locasto (who has a sled and several dogs) must traverse the hostile landscape in order to get to the Klondike area. They are accosted by extreme cold, huge mountains, icy rivers, and avalanches (one of which kills Berna’s blind father). Once they get to the site, it seems that isn’t going to get much better. Most of the gold has already been found. Larry tries in vain to get something going but fails at every turn. Meanwhile Berna is getting accosted by Locasto at the restaurant her aunt and uncle set up. She wants to leave with her aunt and uncle but Larry hears that there is somewhere nearby that has discovered gold and he is determined to get a share of it. Locasto moves in on Larry’s girl while he is away and Berna goes crazy. Once Larry comes back to reclaim his girl and the loot he collected, he realizes what he has done with her and fights Locasto… to the death… dun… dun…. DUN!!!

For the most part this is a convention and boring romance story. What is most interesting about this movie isn’t the plot but the sequence when they are journeying to the site via the mountains. Each character has pushed himself or herself enough to exhaustion. Looking at their faces while they traverse snowy mountains brings realism to a romanticized story. Unfortunately this sequence is but a small part of the movie. Instead we must watch a very stiff romantic couple grapple with whatever they have thrusted on themselves. The movie lags and is boring for most of the running time. But I think it is worth it to see this movie, just so you can see what exactly it took to make such a big effort.

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