The Klondike goes Hollywood

Was it to be education, or entertainment? I had been waiting for the release of the Discovery Channel's Klondike television miniseries with great anticipation.

Was it to be education, or entertainment? I had been waiting for the release of the Discovery Channel’s Klondike television miniseries with great anticipation.

It’s well researched, attested series producer Sir Ridley Scott, who added that “you’ve got to get the facts right.”

Discovery Channel producer Delores Gavin indicated that the miniseries was a journey into new territory for the network. Viewers want to learn, she insisted, and should feel that they have walked a mile in the shoes of the stampeders.

One of the actors, Richard Madden, in an interview stated that working in the harsh cold landscape of foothills Alberta must have been very much like the experience of the stampeders during the gold rush.

The days might have been long, and they might have been cold, but at the end of the day, the actor could still retire to decent accommodation for the night. Spending a few days on a frozen, wind-swept lake doesn’t compare to the weeks, even months, spent by the original horde of gold seekers as they fought their way over the Chilkoot trail in 1897, ‘98, or ‘99.

In fact, the original gold-seekers could have walked as much as 4,000 kilometres of trail, hauling as much as a ton of supplies, one 25-kilogram load at a time, over a precipitous mountain pass from Dyea to Bennett – and that was just the beginning of their odyssey.

Hollywood has not had a good track record when it has produced films with a Klondike theme. The honour of being the first venture onto the TV screen goes to a short-lived television series of the same name that aired in 1960 and 1961. Lasting only 17 episodes, it was produced by Ziv-United Artists for the NBC network, and starred Ralph Taeger (remember him?) and a young James Coburn.

According to Pierre Berton, on whose book, Klondike, the earlier television series was based, the producers planned to have a U.S.-marshal type as the main character. Elected by the miners of Dawson City, he would bring law and order to the gold rush town. As a consultant for the series, Berton informed them that Dawson City was in Canada, that the Mounties maintained law and order, and that there were no serious crimes committed during the gold rush. In fact, it was considered a serious infraction to chop wood on Sunday. So the producers relocated the setting to Skagway.

Other factors shaped that program. Sponsors ensured that cigarettes were smoked, rather than pipes and cigars; snow and mud were out of the question because they cost too much; and viewers had to settle for a California landscape that included pine trees and oaks rather than boreal forest because it was too expensive to shoot on location in the North.

In Scott’s miniseries, the history gets in the way of the plot, so it is massaged and moulded to conform to a typical Hollywood production. After a while, I lost count of the anachronisms.

Guns and murder prevail. In one scene, Bill Haskell, the main character in Klondike, is trying to arrange for a funeral for his friend, Epstein, who was shot in cold blood on their claim. The undertaker, who has a pile of corpses to deal with, informs him that he is going to have to wait a few days for his turn.

At the height of the gold rush, not one murder was committed in Dawson City, and while there was crime, most of it was the white collar variety, perpetrated mainly in the corrupt government mining recorder’s office.

Jack London appears in the summer of 1897, and crosses paths with Haskell – months before he actually arrived in the Klondike. And while the real London spent most of his time in the tiny community at the mouth of the Stewart River, and then came down with a debilitating case of scurvy, the Hollywood version is healthy and robust, and hanging around Dawson City.

Father Judge was not on the Chilkoot Trail in 1897, he was in Dawson City, where he had been since he moved from the town of Forty Mile in the autumn of 1896. And the Mounted Police? Well in this version, they arrive the summer of 1897. In reality, they actually arrived in 1895, and had established British-style justice before the gold rush even started.

The Tr’ondek Hwech’in may not be happy with the portrayal of First Nations in this film. They have been replaced, or displaced, in the script, by the Tlingit people, who actually lived a thousand kilometres away in coastal Alaska. In the third episode, they attack Dawson City, killing a Mountie, after which the Mounties ride after them on their horses, dressed in red serge to hunt (and shoot) them down. This was a piece of absurd old-style cowboys and Indians Hollywood. It certainly never happened in the Yukon.

And why can’t they get the fundamentals right? All the bad things in Hollywood seem to happen in the dark of night – is it not possible for evil to exist in the perpetual daylight of a northern summer?

In conclusion: if you want entertainment with a predictable storyline of gun battles and conflict, good guys and bad guys, with a few wild Indians thrown in for good measure, then this miniseries might work for you. If you want something that portrays the events of the gold rush honestly and accurately, then you could turn instead to Charlotte Gray’s excellent book, Gold Diggers, upon which the film is based.

It is said that any publicity is good publicity, but I disagree. The Klondike Gold Rush was interesting enough as an event without having to distort it to conform to a stock Hollywood formula.

Film and television have a powerful influence in shaping our perception of the world. We may know that the facts are wrong, but most don’t know which facts – and we are constantly bombarded with the usual cliches of good guys and bad guys and gunplay to the point that the myth is permanently imprinted in our brains as the reality. The few who are well-versed in the historical facts are overwhelmed and drowned out by the historical fiction presented on the silver screen.

While it is thought to be good for tourism, I would prefer that visitors arrive in the Yukon with a realistic expectation of the unique place it is (and was), instead of the Hollywood version. After all, why visit the Klondike if it is portrayed as just another Gunsmoke backdrop?

Hollywood is big business, but if the ratings aren’t good enough, the truth doesn’t matter.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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