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Building Alaska (DVD Review)

15 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD

Sarah Palin, on her road to Fox News and a few other incidentals, flourished in our 49th state — but so did long-ago governor and eventual U.S. senator Ernest Greuning, who was among just two of the latter to vote against Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which expanded U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Did someone say “maverick streak”?

But putting politics aside, you can’t find a more apt keyword for this 87-minute documentary to have in its title than “building.” So much of it deals with primitive highways, railroads, bridges and trestles — all constructed over land that tends to buckle some due to seasonal weather change. And as even 20th-century challenges go, just think about transporting building materials from points A-to-B so that roads can be constructed when there aren’t any roads to facilitate movement.

There’s even something for movie fans here: a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (walking in mountain snow as a bear follows behind makes a statement about unforgiving conditions) and something from an obscure Alaska-set silent film based on a novel by Rex Beach, the famed territory chronicler who also wrote The Spoilers (filmed five times and with arguably the movies’ most elaborate fight scene, most memorably between John Wayne and Randolph Scott).

That 1896 Klondike Gold Rush is what brought fortune-seekers to Alaska in the first place — a boat trip out of Seattle with beaucoup blizzards in store. What happened to most of them was usually what happens to partakers in get-rich-quick mass movements, and many of these frustrated gold seekers became the labor source when Michael J. Heney (a contractor of immense historical renown who keeps showing up again and again) built the first railroad through the mountains.

World War II became a huge boon to development; adjacent islands were on the path to Japan. So given that we’re not even talking paved highways until after World War II, this is not your everyday American saga. We learn, in fact, that Alaska — which became a state in 1959 — was in such bad financial shape by 1964 that its fortunes were probably saved by the Johnson Administration’s massive rebuilding efforts after that year’s Good Friday earthquake that saved some of its worst 9.2 havoc for premier city Anchorage.

Gruening is a frequent presence here in archive footage, while Palin — probably happier to be there than on some non-Fox network news show — is interviewed on camera. So is former Gov. Walter Joseph “Wally” Hickel, an environmentalist who became an unexpected hero to the counter-culture when, as Richard Nixon’s secretary of the interior, he was fired over a letter he wrote basically asking the president to cool his stance on “youth” following the 1970 Kent State shootings in Ohio.

The U.S. presidency also provides one of this portrait’s most telling statistics. In 1904, with the Alaskan telegraph finally installed, it took residents a day to learn who had won the election. In pre-telegraph1900, it had taken four months.

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