In our latest wintery outdoor movie (and maybe our last as spring surely is on its way) Rockwood Cinema Review takes a look at 1991’s White Fang.
With the recent release of 2020’s Call Of the Wild, starring Harrison Ford, I thought it would be interesting to look back at another canine classic, White Fang. Both were originally written by Jack London at the turn of last century and follow the adventures of a half dog / half wolf as it transverses the complexities of the wilderness and the “civilized” world with some human agency. However, both these movies are entirely two different approaches on the subject. I would argue that White Fang is more enduring and is worth a re-watch.
White Fang is the century old iconic dog predating Benji, Old Yeller, Lassie and Airbud. A character that has been retold time and time again through countless movies, cartoons and tv adaptions. This particular early 90s, live-action movie stars Ethan Hawke as the boy Jack, who befriends White Fang. And although there are no hawks (real or otherwise), there are real dogs, real huskies, real snow and real nature in this Disney movie. I know Disney movies can be the worst but this is an exception. If you like the great outdoors or dogs you will enjoy this movie, although it is not totally necessary to enjoy this movie. Directed by Randal Kleiser (who directed Grease) and set during the time of the Yukon Gold Rush, it follows Jack, a half-man/half-boy and his relationship with this half wolf/half dog, White Fang (played by Jed). He is called White Fang due to his characteristic white fangs, that distinguish him from his full-blooded, wolf-pack brethren. Both the boy and the dog’s stories are interwoven and as they continue to brush shoulders, it seems like fate is pushing them ever closer together. They begin to survive together against the dangerous, beautiful, ominous and wondrous but unfeeling landscape.
In reality, there were plenty of things to worry about in the Yukon during the Gold Rush. With conditions in these small towns being, in some cases, no more hospitable than the wilderness, both were fraught with their own inherent dangers. In the wilderness there were cold climates, stray wolf packs looking for their next meal. In the towns there were cold people, muggers and theirs also looking for their next meal, looking to exploit travellers hoping to find gold.
In White Fang, it is all Man vs Nature, Nature vs Man, Man vs Man, Nature vs Nurture and so on, where wolves and people alike prey on each other to survive. It seems unlikely that anything fruitful can thrive out there, but here a fruitful relationship builds between a boy and a dog: one of the oldest tales since time. Just as the wolf relied on humans, humans also depended on dog to survive, in mutual co-dependence with nature. Both Jack and White Fang are literally out of step with their surroundings and learn through failure and eventually successes. Spurned on by a sense of adventure, they must find their way through the arctic wilderness.
Now, this movie includes all sorts of fun winter outdoor activities, like camping out by firelight, rolling around in the snow, burning your prized possessions for warmth to keep the wolves at bay or tobogganing with dead bodies and taking a little arctic dips with said dead bodies. But not to worry, its all in the name of family fun. If you dislike cute puppies and dogs then you may not like White Fang. If you hate beautiful cinematography of nature, like lakes, rivers, ice caves and mountains than you may not like White Fang.
No rock n roll references here I am afraid, in this period piece it would not be appropriate. An orchestral soundtrack with the occasional mouth harp is what is provided and works. It should be noted they do manage a good job of integrating the sounds of nature (e.g. running streams, wind, etc). Instead, the real rock star of this film is Jed, the Alaskan/Canadian actor who was also in John Carpenter’s Thing. Jed is a good actor and (was) a good boy, a very good boy.
A compassion for real living things and respect for nature is what is important to the film, White Fang. It is almost a blessing that this film came out before the time of CGI. Not only is it palpable in scenes where you can feel the Arctic chill, but it is pivotal to certain scenes, like where Jack is being chased by a very real bear. Ethan’s concerned expression is genuine. Most importantly, it is integral to the meaning of the film, this engagement with real nature. Whereas in films like this year’s Call Of The Wild this respect for nature seem a little disingenuous, subbing in an artificial nature (the dog itself) for a real one.
Length: 1h 47m
Best time to watch: A good day or afternoon watch. A lot of action takes place during the day, so it makes a great accompanying watch during the day.