Sometimes in history the people who do amazing self-sacrificing deeds are overlooked or others take the credit for their accomplishments. Brian Presley—writer, director, and actor—seeks to uncover the iron wills of the dog sled mushers and the hope of a people almost lost to a diphtheria plague in the early 1900s in Nome, Alaska. In his upcoming film The Great Alaskan Race he retells the tremendous story of Leonhard Seppala and his 12-year-old Siberian husky, Togo, who were instrumental in the famous 1925 Serum Run that saved a village and a way of life. Presley says, “My calling in life is to tell stories of hope…stories about people who overcome unimaginable obstacles.”
The film starts out with Seppala (Brian Presley) winning the Alaskan Sweepstakes Race of 1917. He came to Nome for gold but became one with the Native Alaskans by marrying into the tribe. Dog sledding at the time was a way of life and of survival across the harsh Alaskan tundra. The old Iditarod National Historical Trail was the way of the gold rush and mail routes only accessible by dog sled. It went from Anchorage to Nome.
Seppala’s wife dies but leaves a young daughter, Sigrid (Emma Presley), who is vivacious and rambunctious. He mourns deeply and shuts himself off from others. At one point in 1925, diphtheria breaks out during Christmas Eve Mass at the local Church among the children, a highly infectious disease, and fatal without the antitoxin to control its advance. When Doctor Welsh (Treat Williams) discovers that the antitoxin on hand has expired and that more must be ordered from Anchorage or Seattle, he tells Mayor Maynard (Brad Leland). The problem is that it takes at least three weeks for anything to reach Nome from Anchorage by dog sled but that is too long to wait. The children would die before it would reach Nome. Even though the airplane has recently been invented, no plane can withstand the harsh winter weather of Alaska. The Mayor begs Governor Bone (Bruce Davison) to obtain the minimal amount of serum discovered in a hospital in Anchorage and order the rest from the States. Seppala believes a dog sled hand off of the serum could reach Nome more quickly. The Governor knows the extreme risks, but he has no choice and allows the mushers to set out. Seppala leaves his daughter in the care of Constance (Brea Bee) who is a teacher and catechist at the Church, though he is not religious himself.
The plan is that 20 mushers and their teams would run 700 miles on the old mail route from Anchorage to Nome across the dangerous Norton Sound in subzero temperatures. Each musher takes the serum and runs 50 to 60 miles and warms the serum at each stop, many of whom suffer extreme frostbite. Seppala, while en route to pick up the serum, discovers that his daughter is among the diphtheria sufferers. He becomes more determined than ever to bring that serum to Nome as fast as possible. No one believes he can do it, especially since his lead dog Togo is considered too old to run the route. The entire town prays for the mushers and Mayor George tells Seppala, “We’ll be praying for you.” When Seppala reaches the stop to pick up the serum, he is at the cusp of the treacherous open ice of the Norton Sound with temperatures reaching 80 below. No one hears from Seppala for days and at one point his sled tips over on a steep snow bank almost losing the serum and his dogs. The scene flashes to the townspeople praying and not losing hope. Seppala, Togo and his team make it across the Sound reaching the last musher after going 350 miles in the most extreme Alaskan weather of gale-force winds and blizzard conditions.
© 2019, P12Films. Brian Presley as Leonhard Seppala. All rights reserved.
The last musher, Gunner Kaasar and his team led by Balto, arrive in Nome just in time to save the children who were afflicted with the disease. It was the most incredible feat ever to be remembered by the Alaskan people. The route that normally takes 25 days, the mushers covered in 5 ½ days for a total of 674 miles.
Seppala finally arrives in Nome and collapses. He hears his daughters’ voice. She was saved by the serum he helped to bring to Nome and now she calls to him, “Daddy, wake up!” When he recovers he finds his faith in God who brought him through the most hazardous of circumstances. Presley says, “Here is this guy who is human and flawed and had everything stripped from him. He’s stuck. But, it took this potential tragedy to open his eyes and begin to live again and find his faith.”
The news of the Serum Run spread across the country. The radio announcer proclaims, “We thank those brave men and their valiant dogs for saving so many lives. But we owe them a bigger debt of gratitude for showing us that anything is possible when you have hope and courage.”
The film, though some of the acting is a bit amateurish, tells this amazing story of a man who for many years did not receive the recognition for covering the majority of the route to get the serum to Nome. Historically, the celebrity status went to Gunner who rode the last leg of the route. The script lulls in the center of the film but is offset by the incredible cinematography. As a whole, the film provides a narrative of the power of the human spirit to overcome unimaginable obstacles and the faith to believe that God’s power is at work in our weakness.