A Technicolor frontier adventure set in the wilds of the Arctic, Back to God’s Country exists at the intersection of three of the most comfortingly dad-movie genres; the pre-revisionist Western, the wilderness survival story and the Jack London-patented faithful dog story. Source author James Oliver Curwood was a contemporary of London’s, and although his politics weren’t as troubling as Jack’s, he underwent a dramatic conversion from hunter to conservationist. The tension in that transition underpins the narrative and tone of Joseph Pevney’s film, a full-throated traditional actioner that has surprisingly thoughtful and modern undertones.
At the time of his death in 1927 Curwood was the world’s highest-paid author, and Hollywood inevitably took notice of that. The version of Back to God’s Country released by Simply Pictures is the third of three film versions of the novel, and the only one made outside the silent era. The central plot is a strong, suspenseful one, involving a man and his wife coming into a remote Arctic village to sell furs, then being trapped there by violent crooks who want his furs and his wife.
Peter Keith, the fur seller, is played by Rock Hudson, an actor whose name usually precedes the words “and Doris Day” these days. Back to God’s Country offers a look at a very different Rock Hudson, a credible, intelligent adventure movie lead who, halfway through the film, gets involved in a They Live-length fistfight that still surprises with its level of violence. Simply’s current release slate also includes Bengal Brigade, another action-based Hudson vehicle; between them, they shine a light on a part of Hudson’s career that was incredibly popular at the time, but is now largely forgotten.
The secret weapon of Back to God’s Country is Marcia Henderson as Dolores, Peter Keith’s wife. Despite being set a long way from the American frontier, Curwood’s story knowingly hits a lot of the plot beats of the Western, including identifying its female lead with domesticity and home. The thing is, the house the Keiths are trapped in is a very long way from their home. This lawless village is just as dangerous as the snowy wastes, and Henderson gets to take up arms and stand off convincingly against a lot of its nastier inhabitants. Towards the end, she gets to take part in the wilderness portion of the adventure, and she proves just as tough and capable there.
Pevney was never a first-rank Hollywood director; the James Cagney-starring Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces was his most prominent credit, though he worked with many of the biggest stars of his era including Charles Laughton, Joan Crawford and Jane Russell. But his backlot Arctic circle in this film is surprisingly persuasive here, even if it’s clearly not real. The film’s key weakness is the thin characterisation of its villains, played by Steve Cochran and Hugh O’Brian, a disappointment at a time when directors like Raoul Walsh and Nicholas Ray were injecting real psychological complexity into the Western. But this is just part of the film’s throwback appeal. It takes place in a time where villains where evil, heroes were dashing, dames were tough and dogs were loyal, and it’s hard to resist its charms.