The Hollywood Treatment

In Dawson we are of two minds regarding the Discovery Channel’s Klondike mini-series — that six hour reimagining of history, geography and culture that aired this winter.

We celebrate six hours of free advertising that will probably draw some visitors to our town, and we lament that it had so little to do with anything that happened here during the Gold Rush and that our peaceful little town was portrayed as a sort of Deadwood-North (with expletives deleted).

Personally, I’m happy Charlotte Gray made a lot of money by allowing Ridley Scott to option Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike, the book she worked on while at the Berton House here, but I lament that Scott completely ignored the book.

It’s not the first time an important book about the Klondike has been given the Hollywood treatment.

Pierre Berton’s hit book Klondike was under option to be made into a television series back in 1960. It turned into a comedy of errors, which he recounts in his media study, Hollywood’s Canada: the Americanization of Our National Image (1975), and more comprehensively in My Times: Living With History, 1947-1995 (1995).

Berton met the producers in New York. Among the people connected were scriptwriter Sam Pekinpah and producer William Conrad (better known later as the lead in the series Cannon).

What followed will sound familiar if you saw the Discovery Channel’s version of history.

“What was cooking, I discovered, was just another TV western about cowboys shooting at each other,” said Berton in My Times. “The key character, (Joe) Bailey told me, would be a U.S. Marshall who brings law and order to the unruly denizens of Dawson.”

Berton explained that Dawson City was in Canada.

“Bailey seemed baffled. Had I checked? I reminded him that I wrote the book.”

Still, Bailey opted for a Marshall-figure, elected by the local miners to do the job.

“I told him there were 40 members of the North West Mounted Police in Dawson at the time, not to mention 202 soldiers from the Yukon Field Force, sent to prevent the Americans from grabbing the Yukon. Dawson was never a lawless town; a typical ‘crime’ was chopping wood on the Lord’s Day.”

There were no murders, no major crime, Berton continued, unless you included some of the stage performances at the various entertainment establishments.

“(Bailey) seemed depressed at that, but brightened suddenly. ‘I’ve got it,’ he said. ‘We’ll move the whole story to Alaska.'”

That’s kind of what they’ve been doing since the earliest film treatments of the Klondike story, nearly 100 years ago.

Is it any wonder we’d like to get World Heritage status so we can nail down a bit of our history before someone else makes off with it?

After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.

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