There are many striking things about Spawn of the North but perhaps the most appealing thing is its leisurely pace, and attention to character and location. It is set in Alaska and is about a small fishing village, and the conflict between poachers and honest fishermen. But the actual story takes the back seat. The film begins with about five minutes of wildlife footage of fish, birds and bears, and then we are introduced to the main characters, Tyler Dawson (George Raft) and Jim Kimmerlee (Henry Fonda.) Dorothy Lamour, Akim Tamiroff and John Barrymore are also in the film. But even when they are introduced there is no story in particular. For the first half hour it is unclear what the film is supposed to be about. Then a particular plot starts to develop and the two friends are pitted against each other, as Jim wants to be an honest man whereas Tyler gets mixed up with poachers and even killers.
But the question "What is it really about?" is the wrong question to ask, because it is obvious from the beginning that it is about this place, at this time, and the people in it. It has a very authentic feel to it, it is hard to know whether it was shot on real locations, or on a purpose-built set (according to imdb.com it was partly shot in Alaska) but it does not really matter, since what matters is that it feels genuine. The cinematography by Charles Lang, Hathaway's regular companion, is not as surreal or impressionistic as in some of there other films together, but it captures the beauty of the setting, and it is shot with great depth of field. The camera is also somewhat unstable, swaying with the waves, which adds even more to the genuine feel of the film. It is also a brutal and emotional film, for example a nightly ambush on the fishermen by some salmon thieves is surprisingly bloody and raw.
The film does not feel like if it was from 1938 and this is an important aspect of the film. It feels like if it should have been influenced by films of the 1940s, such as neorealism and Roberto Rossellini. But it is not. It is instead a typical Hathaway film, although far from the conventional idea of what a Hollywood film is (was) like. This is not to imply that Hathaway was unusually ahead of his time but rather that the idea, this ideal type, of Hollywood cinema so often is narrow-minded and faulty. Admittedly the set-up, with two friends ending up on opposite sides of the law and being torn apart by having to fight each other, when they really love each other, is common enough, but the film, as suggested, is not about the story, the narrative, but about character and place, and the film is taking full advantage of the setting.
There is also a connection to another filmmaker more interested in characters than story, Howard Hawks, especially since the film is co-written by Jules Furthman and Talbot Jennings. Furthman worked with Hawks on about six films (it depends on how you count), some of which are Hawks's very best. But Spawn of the North would not be mistaken for a Hawks any more than a Walsh. The pictorial beauty is much more elaborate than in Hawks's own work, and the interactions between the characters are nothing like in a film by Hawks, nor is the world-view that is expressed.
To some extent Spawn of the North is a strange film. Who would be the intended audience? I could easily see how people would get bored since very little happens, until the very end. I would imagine that the general interest in the history of salmon fishing in Alaska was rather low. This is not a film I would necessarily recommend to everybody, even if it has plenty of humour, beauty and empathy, and the acting of Henry Fonda. Yet the very things that might make it uninteresting for some is also what makes it so interesting for a film scholar such as myself. It is a seminal film in Hathaway's career (and in his creative partnership with Charles Lang) and rather memorable. One wonders what André Bazin would have made of it.
My previous pieces on Hathaway:
General introduction here.
Collection of additional online material here.
A new piece, about Souls at Sea.