Peter Lynch’s follow-up to “Project Grizzly,” a smash hit by Canadian standards, is an intriguing dud. The helmer has an expert nose for oddities of northern life and history, and he’s done yeoman work researching and assembling strange Arctic events of the Depression era. The result, which combines archival footage with staged sequences, is too arcane, and too diffusely presented, to stand much chance of heading south, either in theatrical or tube settings.
The project — a major undertaking for the struggling National Film Board — has a fascinating premise: In 1929, the Canadian government hired a sixtysomething Laplander named Andrew Bahr to run a few thousand reindeer from Alaska to the McKenzie River area, ostensibly to feed starving Inuit. The project took six years to traverse only 1,500 miles and caused considerable enmity amongst bureaucrats, businessman and the herders themselves.
Perhaps there was a more cost-effective solution, but the tactical options — including an inexplicable decision to take the herd over a treacherous mountain pass in the dead of winter — aren’t explained here. Instead, we get a panoply of pic-making styles.
First, there’s monochrome newsreel footage of reindeer herds; then, a diary-reading voiceover from Graham Greene while a different actor (Doug Lennox) portrays Bahr onscreen; finally, there a number of tight-suited people (including ubiquitous Canucks Don McKellar and David Hemblen) talking to the camera in cramped, dark-brown settings. The effect is something like watching a parade of government-sponsored Heritage Minutes — or an “SCTV” spoof of same.
Not that Lynch’s truth-based approach is devoid of humor. Funniest are bits with former “SNL”-er Mark McKinney (brother to co-scripter Nicholas McKinney) as a businessman who keeps sending wacky promotional ideas to the expedition. And the helmer is well aware of the absurdity of what’s being depicted, especially when the seemingly crazed mission is contrasted with static tableaux involving Ottawa bureaucrats from the Inter-Departmental Reindeer Sub-Committee who are busy weighing the political considerations.
Tale’s central dramatic conflict, though, a sustained antagonism between the easygoing Lapp herder and hard-nosed Danish naturalist Erling Porsild (Colm Feore), doesn’t have much impact, largely because the men never meet onscreen, and we have only Porsild’s stuffy monologues and Bahr’s disembodied narration to go by.
Better are sidebars from Peter Wood (Dennis Allen), a First Nations guide who eventually gets worn out by the squabbling, and by Bahr’s occasionally bizarre hesitations. (At one point, the leader takes off for six months to round up some strays.)
A general sense of fruitless adventure pervades the pic itself; by the time Lynch starts tossing in newsreel footage of Hitler’s brownshirts and an early-‘ 30s New Year’s Eve on Times Square, it becomes all too easy to lose any grasp of what “The Herd” is about.
Similarly, Ken Myhr’s moody, piano-based score is initially interesting, but the minor-key noodlings — much like Michael Nyman redoing the “Twin Peaks” theme — soon seem out of tonal proportion to the chilly, arm’s-length proceedings. Other tech aspects are good, but effective only for auds actively seeking bleak ironies of the most elusive stripe.