Most people are probably familiar with the storyline of The Great Alaskan Race, either from elementary school history class or the highly inaccurate animated film Balto. In 1925, Nome, Alaska, experienced an outbreak of diphtheria among most of the children living there. In desperate need of an antitoxin, Dr. Welch (Treat Williams) and Mayor Maynard (Brad Leland) sent a telegram to Governor Bone (Bruce Davison) asking for immediate assistance.
The governor weighs the best option for delivering the medicine, considering that the waterways are frozen over at this time of year. After a few tests to fly there proved futile, he coordinates with Maynard to mush the mail route from Nenana to Nome. This trail, totaling some 674 miles, typically took over three weeks to complete. Knowing that time is of the essence, the mushers and their dogs needed to accomplish the whole ordeal in less than a week.
“…Alaska experienced an outbreak of diphtheria among most of the children living there.”
19 of the 20 mushers involved covered somewhere between 50 to 80 miles on the route, an impressive and treacherous feat. However, Leonhard Seppala (Brian Presley) and his lead dog Togo trekked 350 miles altogether. This is because Seppala had a personal stake in the matter as his daughter Sigrid (Emma Presley), is one of the afflicted children. He took on the most dangerous leg of the race, around the Norton Sound in subzero temperatures and constant blizzards.
Brian Presley wrote, directed, produced, and stars in The Great Alaskan Race, and his reverence for the dire situation and heroics of the mushers are evident throughout. However, passion alone does not make a good movie. And here’s where the film falters a bit. See, for a story all about racing against time, rooted in several life-or-death situations, this drama lacks a sense of urgency. Despite Presley’s best-laid plans, the stakes, while adequately explained, are never felt in full force.