Jack London’s classic tale of a dog struggling to survive after being stolen away from his loving family has been a difficult one for Hollywood to bring to the screen intact. This generation’s “The Call of the Wild” benefits from a lucky happenstance–finding the right dog, but the script borders on outlandish and uses CGI to make a real dog cartoonish.
London’s dog was a collie-St. Bernard mix, one that he had met and was owned by Marshall Latham Bond and his brother Louise Whitford Bond in Dawson City. Through the wife of the director, the movie found one such stray named Buckley. According to the video, the main protagonist of the film had yet to be created and, instead, a human stand-in (Terry Notary) was being used. I’m glad Buckley found a home. I’m not glad that he’s become a cartoon.
In the beginning, Buck is owned by Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) and his owner’s status in the town makes him the loutish king of the California town. He’s allowed to wander around the town off-leash and out of sight of his owner. At home, he has no house manners, comically almost destroying the expensive ceramic pieces, disturbing the area rugs and threatening to ruin meals so much that the kitchen staff are well-practiced in hiding the food. At over a hundred pounds, this is behavior that would not or should not be tolerated by any dog owner, but here it is played as comical in the manner of the Marmaduke comic strips about a Great Dane and his family or the movies about a St. Bernard named Beethoven.
When one of the hired help hears that large dogs are fetching a high price and entices Buck into a crate which is then quickly boarded up and the dog soon ends up in a port city. He learns the “law of the club” and meets up with other family pets who are also distressed. The dogs act very undoglike. The dogs are led along, without leads or leashes through the town. Don’t try that at home with a pack of untrained or even trained dogs. Buck has an accidental meeting with a man, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who has dropped his harmonica. Buck returns it to him, but Buck is sold to someone else: Canadian postal service dog sledders (Omar Sy and Cara Gee).
In the original story, the French-Canadian dispatchers were both men, François and Perrault. The route they run is the Yukon trail. In this film, Perrault is a black Canadian. His partner is a woman, possibly First Nation (Cara Gee). Buck is immediately place as a wheel dog, but the current lead dog, Spitz, takes an instant dislike to Buck. While Buck, with his St. Bernard background, is not out of place in the snowbound environs, there are dogs portrayed here that are: Golden Retriever, Neopolitan Mastiff and some out of shape other dogs.
In the beginning, Buck blunders about, dragging the team down slopes and missing turns. One could then understand Spitz’s dislike for the newcomer. But even London portrayed it as something more. Spitz is an “alpha” and one that rules through terror. For anyone who has seen a dog fight at a dog park or had to separate their own dogs, the dog fight is not particularly convincing. When Buck, having vanquished Spitz, takes over the lead position, the start-off posturing has more to do with modern sprinting or other racing then actual dogs mushing. In this respect, “The Call of the Wild” doesn’t compare well with another recent dog mushing movie, “Togo,” currently on Disney +. “Togo” gives a logical progression in training and shows the importance of understanding the environment and intelligent disobedience. “The Call of the Wild” seems to be more on the side of nature rather than nurture. Anyone who does sports with dogs knows you need both.
Buck does well under the dispatchers, and even saves the woman when she falls through the ice while testing the way. But Buck’s time with these good masters soon ends; Perrault gets a message: The dog sledding postal service is being terminated. He is to return and the dogs are to be sold.
Buck is then sold to wealthy and arrogant trio: Hal (Dan Stevens), his sister Mercedes (Karen Gillan) and her husband Charles (Colin Woodell). All are well dressed but in a manner totally unsuitable for wild and wintry climes and mushing. They’ve been sold a map and a dream by a huckster as revealed in their conversation with John Thornton. Their pile of goods are ridiculous–they obviously don’t want to leave the comforts of civilization behind on their gold expedition. Thornton advises them first that they need to break the sled runners from the ice below so that the sled will slide and the dogs, who have been ineffectively straining on their harnesses, can pull the load. But he also tells them that they should wait; the ice is melting and they will not make it over the river because of the breaking ice.
In the novel, the threesome ignore all advice and drive on, but Thornton meets them when the three are down to five dogs and Buck has collapsed. Here, as in the novel, Thornton threatens them and takes Buck who has collapsed. In the novel, the three and their remaining dogs perish. In the film, Hal survives and seeks revenge.
The film fills in Thorton’s background; Thornton has left a wife behind in the Southland (the United States) and their parting has to do with the grief they couldn’t share over the death of their son. His son had dreamed of exploring the wilderness of Canada and Alaska. As Thornton nurses Buck back to health, he begins to dream of following his son’s dreams of going beyond the maps. Their adventure takes them to somewhere that looks similar to the map that Hal had.
For a while, Thornton finds a legendary lone cabin and even a fortune. During the summer, he pans for gold and Buck even helps him. Buck has also met up with a white Timberwolf. And from the start, Buck has imagined seeing a black wolf who calls to him and even, at one point, helped him lead the dispatchers to safety.
Michael Green’s screenplay builds on the mistaken notion of the alpha wolf, not really understanding pack structure. The concept of an alpha male is based on a familial pack–not unrelated canines. Eventually the younger males would be driven out, form bachelor packs until they can find their own mates. In the film, the wolves in the area all gather on a peak and the white wolf belongs to that pack as if the wolves belonged to a township. The white wolf and Buck take up a companionship but Buck always returns to Thornton until the tragic ending.
In the original, the threat to Thornton is the First Nation or Native Americans, but this conflict isn’t so acceptable in these more politically correct times. The script doesn’t take time to consider how the gold rush affected the tribes and their lands, instead, it devotes time to giving Thornton an emotional momentum and his own emotional tragedy. So the necessary villain becomes Hal under extremely unlikely circumstances.
Earlier attempts to bring “The Call of the Wild” to the screen tried to bring in romance between Thornton and some woman. In the 1937 Clark Gable movie, Loretta Young played his love interest, Claire Blake, but she was already married and the twosome find her husband still alive. Claire, her husband and John Thornton all survive.
In the Charlton Heston 1972 family adventure movie, Buck becomes a German Shepherd. John Thornton is interested in a successful business woman Calliope Laurent (Michele Mercier) who runs a saloon, but can’t imagine himself as her helper–that would be too emasculating. Thornton saves Buck from Hal (Horst Heuck), Charles (Friedhelm Lehmann) and Mercedes (Maria Rohm). Thornton and his friends find gold, but are killed (as in the novel) by Yeehat Native Americans/First Nation Peoples.
Both the 1972 and the 1937 versions are available on Amazon Prime. The 1937 version is also notorious for the date rape that occurred between the two stars during the filming, with Young later “adopting” the child that resulted.
While the 2020 Harrison Ford version is family friendly, it is also very much a live-action movie with a CGI dog that really wants to be an animated cartoon. The dogs are not dog-like and this Buck has more in common with the furry Beethoven than the dog in the original story or any real dog facing the harsh realities of being stolen and re-adjusting to harsh conditions. The film suffers in comparison to the much better “Togo.”
“The Call of the Wild” is supposed to take place during the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. “Togo” builds to the 1925 serum run. Downton Abbey fans also have to decide if they’re ready to see Dan Stevens as a ranting villain who [Spoiler Alert] mysteriously is able to find a cabin literally out in the middle of nowhere all alone. Only in a cartoon or a melodrama would this be possible and yet Harrison Ford’s narration doesn’t have the tongue-in-cheek comical note.
“The Call of the Wild” may have saved and made a one-time Kansas stray a star, and while that’s a cool coincidence, one wishes the product was more doggedly doggish than this cartoonish end product.