The Wild North

The Wild North (1952) is not a western as much as a “northern,” a frontier adventure starring Stewart Granger as Jules Vincent, a French-Canadian trapper in the early years of the 20th century. During a brief visit to civilization, Jules develops an instant, mutual attraction for an Indian girl saloon singer (Cyd Charisse) and defends her from a bullying drunk named Brody (Howard Petrie). The next day, Jules and the girl head back to the wild in Jules’s canoe, accompanied by an apparently chastened Brody. A dangerous journey down some rapids forces Jules to fatally shoot Brody in self-defense. Vincent leaves the girl at his cabin before returning to the wilderness, where he is tracked down by Pedley (Wendell Corey), a Canadian Mountie who insists on returning Jules back to civilization to stand trial for Brody’s murder. During a lengthy and dangerous journey through the snowbound landscape, the antagonists become friends, but after a wolf attack leaves Pedley in a near-catatonic state, Jules escorts him safely home and takes him on a canoe trip down the rapids to shock him into consciousness. Pedley, finding himself in the same position as Jules during his fateful trip with Brody, tries to shoot Jules to gain control of the boat. Realizing Jules’s motivations in the killing of Brody, he then testifies for the trapper at his trial. Jules is freed and the two men part as friends, as Jules returns to the wild with his Indian maiden.

The Wild North had as its inspiration a true-life figure: Albert Pedley, a Canadian Mountie (a retired octogenarian living in Scotland at the time of the movie’s production) who brought a lost missionary safely home via a five-month trek through the wilderness, despite falling victim to the “white madness.” According to the production notes, the official source for the film’s story was the chapter “When Terror Stalked Behind” from Walter W. Liggett’s 1930 book Pioneers of Justice: The Story of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Frank Fenton’s screenplay, however, focuses not on Pedley but rather his fictional antagonist, the trapper Vincent, and the project’s changing title reflected the shifts in narrative focus, with the film called at various times in its production Constable Pedley, The Constable Pedley Story, The Wild Land, The Wild North Country and The North Country. The Wild North was the first film for the Austrian-born director Andrew Marton following his co-direction (with Compton Bennett) of the 1950 Best Picture nominee King Solomon’s Mines, and it reunited him with that film’s cinematographer (Robert Surtees, who had won an Oscar for Mines) and its star, Stewart Granger. Marton claimed that, as with most of his M-G-M projects, he was offered the Wild North script only after “twenty-one other contract directors had refused [it] for various reasons,” and he joked of his star, “I’m the only director in captivity who made three pictures with Stewart Granger” (the third was 1954’s Green Fire, FSMCD Vol. 6, No. 5).

While Marton and Surtees had filmed Mines on African locations in temperatures up to 140 degrees, the locations for The Wild North provided a new set of production problems: the storyline hinged on remote locations in a variety of weather, including the dead of winter. The studio sent location scouts to northern Alberta’s Peace River area, where the real-life Pedley’s journey had begun, but the region lacked an airstrip—not to mention the roads and facilities needed by a film crew. Marton and the location scouts ultimately selected three different locations, for filming during three different times of year. The lengthy gaps in the shooting schedule allowed Granger to complete another M-G-M feature, Richard Brooks’s The Light Touch, during the hiatus, which made the extended schedule more financially feasible for the studio.

Marton and Surtees chose locations for the winter scenes, which began filming in February 1951 near Galena Pass, just below the Idaho-British Columbia border, and along the Wood River, near Idaho’s Sun Valley. A 35-mile path was cleared with a snowplow, and the crew journeyed to their locations by truck, jeep and dogsled. Cameras were equipped with a special heating unit so that they could film at 20 degrees below zero, and a plywood board was used to keep the camera from sinking into the snow. During location scouting in Idaho, a ranger warned Marton about bear traps, and he was inspired to add a pivotal scene in which Pedley is felled by a trap and Jules must decide whether to rescue him.

For the climactic river rapids scenes, Marton scouted locations in Canada, California, Oregon and Washington. He particularly favored a location in Finland, but the studio balked at the expense of flying the crew out, so Marton chose Idaho’s Clearwater River, where an abandoned Civilian Conservation Camp was used to house the crew for the May 1951 filming. According to Marton, six stuntmen had died filming a rapids scene for M-G-M’s 1928 film The Trail of ’98, so he was especially careful with the sequence, which took three weeks to film. In Marton’s words, “When I said in the production meeting that I wanted to shoot rapids, the sour faces that met me from the production table would have made a good comedy touch.” For dolly shots following the canoe down the river, the camera crew was secured with safety lines, and long shots featured dummies in the canoe, with the motion of the water moving the paddles and making it look like they were actually rowing.

Summer sequences were shot during July 1951 near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with art director Preston Ames building a small “Alberta” town as well as a village populated by 86 Shoshone Indians. Thanks to the filmmakers’ precautions, there were no serious injuries during the lengthy and difficult production, although the M-G-M editing staff were reportedly offended by Granger’s profanities during an outtake in which the actor fell over in the snow and his sled dogs dragged their sled and Granger’s co-star on top of him, causing an M-G-M executive to warn Marton to “curb your actors.”

The Wild North has a surprisingly lighthearted tone despite its occasionally violent storyline (significantly, the killing of Brody occurs between scenes), typified by Granger’s charming performance as Jules. Shortly before filming Marton instructed Granger to use a French-Canadian accent, and his distinctive vocal delivery (reminiscent of John Cleese’s “outrageous French accent” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and his tendency to call the stoic Pedley “bay-bee” provide a striking counterpoint to scenes of Jules attempting to strangle Pedley and plotting with two strangers, Ruger and Sloan, against the Mountie (in what plays as a miniature version of The Naked Spur). Wendell Corey’s dry performance as Pedley provides an effective contrast to Granger’s amiable hamminess, and is a forerunner of one of his most memorable appearances, as James Stewart’s skeptical policeman friend in Rear Window. Reviews were generally positive, with Variety calling the film “generally absorbing.” Much mention was made of Surtees’s cinematography of the spectacular scenery, especially his use of a brand-new color film process from Ansco, heavily touted by the studio. The film had its greatest impact on a 23-year-old steward named Paul Richardson, on leave from the U.S. Naval Academy, who was inspired by two viewings of the film—specifically, Father Simon’s line to Jules, “There’s no wilderness wide enough to hide a sin”—to confess to his murder of 40-year-old Jimmy Keys the previous year.

Despite the setting in the Canadian North rather than American West, The Wild North’s focus on a small group of characters and their conflicts in the wilderness make it a cousin of The Naked Spur. Bronislau Kaper took a similar scoring approach to The Wild North to the one he would use the following year for Spur, with a strong main theme dominating the score. Kaper enjoyed a breakthrough hit the following year with his Oscar-winning score for Lili (FSMCD Vol. 8, No. 15) and its popular song, “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo,” but many film music fans rank among his greatest works the epic seafaring scores for Mutiny on the Bounty (FSMCD Vol. 7, No. 16) and Lord Jim (FSMCD Vol. 8, No. 11); his Wild North theme is a satisfying precursor to those large-scale melodies. While Kaper was a contract composer at M-G-M during much of his career, parts of his Wild North score, especially the tension-filled cues, are strongly reminiscent of the studio’s musical MVP at the time, Miklós Rózsa, who in the early ’50s was scoring such M-G-M epics as Quo Vadis and Plymouth Adventure (FSMCD Vol. 6, No. 1). While the Wild North theme dominates the score, especially in grand renditions accompanying Surtees’s panoramic shots of remote locales, Kaper also provided vigorous action cues, although the two longest action scenes—the surprisingly brutal wolf attack (which Marton claimed was “shot in a corrugated iron shed on the M-G-M backlot”) and the climactic confrontation on the rapids—are unscored.

Just as Kaper used a Stephen Foster melody as the love theme for The Naked Spur, he used the song “Northern Lights,” which Cyd Charisse’s character sings in her opening scene (dubbed in the finished film by Ruth Martin), to represent the relationship between Jules and the Indian girl he loves. The song was written by Charles Wolcott, who also conducted Kaper’s score, but unlike The Naked Spur, where the growing relationship between Howard and Lina serves as the emotional linchpin of the story, The Wild North’s romantic relationship is only a minor subplot, exemplified by the fact that the film’s credits only list Charisse’s character as “Indian Girl.” Kaper uses brief snippets of Wolcott’s melody in his score, particularly for a campfire scene in which Jules and Pedley discuss the girl. As Marton himself admitted, The Wild North is ultimately “a love story between two men,” but it is not unsurprising that Kaper was not expected to write a Jules–Pedley love theme. Variety’s review remarked that “Bronislau Kaper’s music score fits the story,” but his score does much more than that, consistently maintaining dramatic interest while musically reinforcing the grandeur of the setting. — 

The Wild North was one of the last M-G-M scores recorded on monaural optical film (in October 1951), with these fragile masters dubbed by the studio to ¼″ tape in the 1960s—by which time some cues were unplayable. Fortunately, acetate transfer discs at the University of Southern California’s Cinematic Arts Library (part of their M-G-M holdings) were made available to fill in the missing cues (albeit with slightly more noise than the studio elements) and allow for the complete presentation of this exciting Bronislau Kaper score.

17. Main Title
Kaper’s bold, brassy main theme is introduced over the M-G-M logo, with a majestic presentation of the material for the title card over majestic mountain scenery. A more animated rendition of the theme plays as the remaining titles unfold, yielding to a shimmering, awe-tinged reading as Jules Vincent (Stewart Granger) paddles his canoe toward a riverside town. The cue takes on a more strained tone (alluding to the strife to come) as the trapper arrives at the town’s dock.
18. Northern Lights
After rescuing a kitten from a collie, Vincent visits a hotel saloon, where he is captivated by a lovely Indian maiden (Cyd Charisse) and her vocal performance of “Northern Lights” (music and lyrics by Charles Wolcott, sung in the film by Ruth Martin). She finishes the melancholy song and exchanges pleasantries with Vincent, who reveals that he is a friend of her people, the Chippewas. The two connect almost instantly but are interrupted by a drunken thug, Brody (Howard Petrie). Jules dispatches him violently and then spends the rest of the evening drinking and talking with the girl.
19. Brody
Jules agrees to take the girl north in his canoe, along with a seemingly apologetic Brody. The main theme is given a pure, bucolic treatment as they depart from the dock, but the mood is disturbed when the score nastily acknowledges a change in Brody’s facial expression that goes unnoticed by Jules and the girl. A recoiling line for Brody plays under the main theme as the thug plots against the trapper; an outburst of panicking brass, strings and percussion marks a transition to a distant shot of the canoe traveling down treacherous rapids (and suggesting Jules’s offscreen murder of Brody).
Brody’s motive continues to quietly pollute the main theme as Jules and the girl arrive at the northern encampment of McQuarrie—without the other man. The melodic idea is developed into a nagging canonic passage for strings as the couple attempts to reach Vincent’s cabin without attracting attention from the townsfolk. After they avoid a lawman, “Northern Lights” is quoted when Jules is forced to introduce the girl to the aggressively friendly Father Simon (Morgan Farley). The tune gives way to Brody’s material when the priest warns Jules not to travel into the wild, for a terrible winter is coming—the score hints that Brody’s murder is what will drive Vincent into the mountains. A foreboding orchestral passage unfolds as Jules ushers the girl into his cabin and informs her that they will wait for the cover of night to travel to see the Chippewas. Brody’s material continues to be developed as the scene segues back to Jules and the girl traversing the river, with Vincent dumping a bundle of Brody’s clothes into the water. A reverent string melody sounds as the canoe arrives at the Chippewas’ village.
20. Pedley
Jules kisses the girl goodbye and leaves her with the Indians. A forlorn introduction gives way to a punishing rendition of Brody’s material and a belabored development of the main theme as Vincent travels through the wilderness on foot. A transition to Constable Pedley (Wendell Corey) arriving at the McQuarrie police station is marked by an austere statement of the main theme on muted brass.
21. Brody
Assigned to bring in Vincent, Pedley visits the trapper’s cabin. A quietly threatening version of the main theme leads to statements of “Northern Lights” and Brody’s motive as Pedley interrogates the Indian girl at the cabin; he warns her that it would be best if Jules turned himself in.
22. Father
A pensive introduction for strings plays as the Indian girl considers the now-departed Pedley’s words of warning. The scene segues to the constable traveling into the wilderness on his dogsled, the score providing his search for Vincent with a single-minded repeated-note brass fanfare that leaps up and down a minor third, over plodding accompaniment. The main theme is optimistically reprised during a transition to Jules making his way north. Trilling strings and cautious woodwinds play as Jules discovers Father Simon, frozen and half-mad; hysterical string writing and lurching brass underscore Vincent running toward the fallen priest, followed by a distraught string passage as Jules carries him into a nearby cabin and lays him in bed.
Father’s Death
Jules tends to Father Simon; before the priest dies of hypothermia, he warns Jules that he cannot hide from sin. Eerie woodwind writing plays as Vincent covers Father Simon’s corpse and looks over to the cabin’s doorway, where Pedley has arrived.
23. Stop It
Pedley arrests Vincent and the two begin their treacherous journey back to McQuarrie. While camping at night, Jules sneaks over to a sleeping Pedley, the score creating suspense with string harmonics and a creepy tune for flute over a persistent descending half-step on solo horn. The policeman wakes up before Vincent can strangle him, and the two men fight to a backdrop of darting strings, calamitous brass and snare punctuation. The cue builds to an uncomfortable sustain when Pedley retrieves his revolver and levels it at Vincent: a murky bass clarinet reading of the main theme plays under contrastingly hopeful woodwinds as he orders the fugitive back to his sleeping bag. The cue peters out after a transition to Pedley laying awake and watching Vincent sleep.
24. Sometimes
After another unscored daytime sequence of traveling, Vincent and Pedley set up camp. A haunting passage for arpeggiating tremolo strings and delicate woodwinds plays as Jules taunts Pedley, asking the officer if he ever dreams about death, and positing that he might not wake up in the morning. The scene segues to daytime with the pair in transit; the main theme plays over trudging accompaniment as Vincent jogs ahead of the sleep-deprived Pedley, who struggles to stay awake on his dogsled. A dissonant line for muted horns enters the texture as Jules notices the officer momentarily falling asleep; a neutral version of the main theme is voiced on clarinet for a transition to the next nighttime campsite.
25. Ruger
That same night, Vincent and Pedley are joined by two wandering travelers, Ruger (Ray Teal) and Sloan (Clancy Cooper). Pedley insists that it would be impractical for the four of them to make for McQuarrie together, so once Pedley falls alseep, Ruger awakens Vincent and suggests that they dispose of the officer. Brody’s motive is reprised for the exchange, with ominous underscoring focusing on a leaping major seventh for Jules appearing receptive to the proposal. Ruger retreats and the cue crescendos as Pedley snaps out of his slumber to find Vincent back asleep.
Vincent comes to Pedley’s aid the following morning when the visitors attempt to kill the officer; the villains are given directions to Jules’s cabin and are sent on their way.
26. You Are Lost
A bustling development of the main theme underscores the protagonists’ continuing journey through the snow, the material growing in grandeur as they travel into the mountains. Foreboding strings and woodwinds sound when Vincent insists that Pedley admit to being lost; the officer refuses and the main theme reasserts itself, building to an awesome statement as they arrive before a particularly treacherous mountain.
27. I Am Lost
Pedley leaves Vincent behind at their camp and explores the surrounding terrain. An urgent, canonic development of the main theme sounds as he travels on his dogsled. He dismounts to survey a range of surrounding mountains, and after a sickening swell of dissonance and harp glissandi he declares himself lost.
Back at the camp, Jules uses burning logs to fend off visiting wolves, the score marking the animals’ presence with nervous clarinet and a lurching motive for strings. The scene segues to Pedley en route to the camp with a brief reprise of the trudging material from “Sometimes”; his foot becomes ensnared in a bear trap, to an exclamation of low brass.
28. Not a Chance
Pedley unlocks Jules’s handcuffs and the trapper in turn helps free the policeman from the bear trap—trust is finally established between them. After a transition to their campsite at night, the men bond, accompanied by reflective developments of the main theme. Pedley enviously declares that the trapper has a more appealing home to return to than he does, with the score reprising “Northern Lights” on flute to conjure the Indian girl and the cat awaiting Jules. The main theme returns fatefully when Pedley accepts his handcuffs back from Vincent and tells him that neither of them are going to make it back.
The following morning, Jules determines their route, to a pastoral line for woodwinds that mingles with the main theme. As they embark anew on their trek, the primary melody gathers strength and builds to an invigorating brass-dominated setting under racing high strings. This material is interrupted by a threatening passage for wolves stalking the protagonists: a snarling motive trades off with a struggling version of the main theme over a low, off-kilter pattern as the beasts trail behind Vincent and Pedley. After a transition to the travelers’ campsite, woodwinds close the cue on an air of uncertainty. The wolves’ subsequent attack on the men is unscored.
29. Read It
The men fend off the wolves but Pedley is left in a near-catatonic state after the attack. Vincent attempts to snap him out of his condition when he takes the officer’s progress log and writes a demeaning remark in it; the score responds with a disturbed development of the main theme against a descending five-note “breakdown” motive when Pedley offers no reaction. Escalating, unstable string writing accompanies the men as they continue uphill through the snow, the main theme struggling for exposure as Pedley blankly follows Vincent. The officer wanders away from Jules and the dogs, the score unfolding with dire, imitative writing until Vincent catches up to Pedley and slaps him. Once again, the “breakdown” motive sounds when the officer does not respond. An urgent four-note motive is introduced as Jules leads his mute companion back to the dogs and handcuffs him to the sled, with the score building to cathartic renditions of the main theme as the two persist uphill against a daunting backdrop of mountains; the material climaxes as both men collapse to the ground, exhausted.
There It Is
Blustery woodwind and string runs sound as Jules regains his composure and re-cuffs Pedley to the dogs’ leash, leaving the sled behind. The final stretch of their journey is scored with struggling iterations of the main theme as well as nagging developments of Pedley’s minor third material from “Father,” and his breakdown motive. Vincent points out McQuarrie in the distance; the main theme plays over trilling accompaniment as he shakes the non-responsive policeman and barks at him: “You want to go in like this? You want people to talk about it the rest of their lives? How the mouse brought back the cat?” The cue reaches a defeated conclusion for a transition to Vincent’s cabin, where the Indian girl receives the weary travelers.
30. Rapids
Jules decides that the only way he can bring Pedley back to reality is to make him face death a second time. The urgent four-note idea from “Read It” is reprised as the men set out on the river in a canoe. Brody’s motive makes a threatening return when they reach the rapids, but the film’s climax is unscored: while navigating the treacherous river, Pedley comes to his senses. He shouts back at Vincent, demanding that he help steer the canoe ashore but Jules refuses and puts Pedley in the same predicament the trapper was forced to endure with Brody. The officer fires a shotgun blast past the trapper and the boat overturns; the two make it to shore, with Pedley finally understanding that Vincent had no choice but to shoot Brody.
31. End Title and Cast
Pedley testifies at trial—implying that Vincent killed Brody in self-defense—and Jules is set free. Vincent bids farewell to Pedley and gives him his kitten, encouraging him to build a life around it. Pedley names the cat “Bay-bee,” Jules’s affectionate nickname for the officer. The scene transitions to the river, where a calm, pastoral version of the main theme plays for Jules and the Indian girl setting off in their canoe; Pedley waves goodbye from the dock and the melody reaches a grand, celebratory conclusion. The end titles offer a final robust rendition of the main theme over a shot of the rapids.

Bonus Tracks

32. Northern Lights (pre-recording)
This slightly shorter arrangement of “Northern Lights” was recorded prior to production, at which time it was possibly planned for Cyd Charisse (singing here, to piano accompaniment by Arthur Rosenstein) to perform her own vocals.
33. Rapids (alternate)
This unused, earlier version of “Rapids” finds the sympathetic four-note motive from “Read It” replaced by a passage for threatening brass, undulating woodwinds and nervous strings. The latter portion of the cue, featuring Brody’s theme, is identical to what is heard in the film (disc 1, track 30). —