Disney stands to take a healthy bite out of the box office with “Iron Will,” a rousingly old-fashioned dog-sled adventure that’s entertaining enough to draw even adolescents who normally avoid “wholesome” family fare. Backed by a carpet-bombing TV ad campaign, pic should easily surpass domestic grosses for studio’s recent “White Fang.” Foreign, vid and TV prospects are just as bright.
Pic began life as a 1971 first-draft screenplay by John Michael Hayes, a two-time Oscar nominee (“Rear Window,””Peyton Place”) and frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator. Hayes — whose last documented onscreen credit was 1966 ‘s “Nevada Smith”– subsequently wrote a second draft that was optioned in 1988 by producer Robert Schwartz. Later, writers Djordje Milicevic (“Runaway Train”) and Jeff Arch (“Sleepless in Seattle”) were brought aboard to make their own contributions.
The end result is a seamless albeit frequently cornball scenario based on a real-life event, a 522-mile dog-sled race between Winnipeg, Canada, and St. Paul , Minn., in winter 1917.
Youngest and least experienced of the competing mushers is 17-year-old Will Stoneman (Mackenzie Astin), a South Dakota farm boy who enters the race to save his family from financial ruin after the accidental death of his father (John Terry). With the reluctant support of his mother (Penelope Windust), who wants Will to use part of the $ 10,000 prize to attend college, Will trains for the ordeal with Native American handyman Ned Dodd (August Schellenberg).
J.P. Harper (David Ogden Stiers), the flamboyant mogul who’s underwriting the race, is initially unwilling to permit the youth to risk life and limb while competing under such harsh physical and climatic conditions. But Harry Kingsley (Kevin Spacey), a hard-charging yellow journalist, shames the mogul into accepting Will. Kingsley’s motives, of course, are not altruistic — he plans to exploit the boy’s adventures for his own career advancement.
As the overland race begins, Will finds he must be extra mindful of an opponent even more dangerous than the snow-blanketed terrain: Scandinavian champ Borg Guillarson (George Gerdes), an egotistical and underhanded blowhard. To make matters worse, Borg has the behind-the-scenes support of Angus McTeague (Brian Cox), a wealthy sports fan who doesn’t want to lose a side bet he made against Will.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, Will has courage to burn and fortitude to spare. Better still, he also has his father’s best dog, Gus, at the head of his sled team.
Under the smooth and solid direction of first-time feature helmer Charles Haid (the actor still best known for his “Hill Street Blues” TV role), “Iron Will” sustains interest, excitement and period flavor for all of its well-paced 108 minutes. The sled-race scenes appear authentic — sometimes harrowingly so — and lead to a suitably cheer-worthy climax. William Wages’ superior lensing greatly enhances the impressive action, which was shot on location in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Astin — brother of Sean, son of John Astin and Patty Duke — does a fine job of registering pure-hearted pluck and idealistic fervor without coming across as bland or campy. He also does himself proud in scenes where it’s obvious that the filmmakers didn’t fake his dashing (and tumbling) through the snow.
Script does trot out a few howlers, such as: “Don’t let fear stand in the way of your dreams, son” and “That boy has the heart of a bear.”
On the plus side, though, “Iron Will” makes clever use of a media-savvy subplot. Kingsley’s stories about Will’s exploits are taken to heart by readers in an anxious America on the verge of entering World War I. As a result, Will becomes an instant hero who is greeted by flag-waving fans at various stops on his journey. And just to make sure the story can be milked even more, Kingsley, who coins the “Iron Will” nickname in the first place, has a colleague track down Will’s family for an exclusive interview.
Obviously, some things haven’t changed much since 1917.