50 Movies for 50 States Part Two – The `80s: #2 – Alaska, Film – The Golden Seal

#2 – Alaska, The Golden Seal

The Golden Seal (1983), a Samuel Goldwyn Company production, directed by Frank Zuniga, written by James Vance Marshall (novel) and John Groves, with Steve Railsback, Penelope Milford, Michael Beck, Torquil Campbell, Seth Sakai and Richard Narita, original music by Dana Kaproff, cinematography by Eric Saarinen, edited by Robert Q. Lovett, filmed at the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, with additional scenes filmed in British Columbia, Canada

The plot: Eric, a 10-year-old boy living with his parents Jim and Tania in a remote area of coastal Alaska discovers a local legend – a “golden seal” and her pup. When word gets out that the golden seal is indeed real, Eric decides to try and protect the legendary creature from hunters – including his own father; Legend has it that the pelt (plew?) of the golden seal is worth a fortune and each of the men hunting the animal wants to claim that fortune for their own, but Eric doesn’t want to lose his new friend – his only friend.

Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but The Golden Seal is an odd pup – no pun intended – beginning with the legend at the center of the story. When they say “golden” seal, are they referring to the color of its fur or are they implying that the seal’s fur is physically comprised of gold or both? (The seals in the film actually look like they’ve been spray-painted gold.) My first thought is that option “B” would be the most likely scenario, since the fur is supposedly worth a fortune – but, I really am over-thinking this. After all, The Golden Seal is clearly a fantasy film. It’s not like last week’s film, which seemed to want to be taken seriously but then throws a “magic robot” at you, completely wrecking any believability it was attempting to get across. You could compare the golden seal, the creature, to being something like a unicorn or a dragon.

The bigger conundrum in The Golden Seal is the human characters in the film, which come across as “pod people” — constantly saying and doing things and reacting in ways that no normal people would. Having never read the novel on which the film was based, “A River Ran Out of Eden” by James Vance Marshall, I have no idea how accurate the film portrays the characters from the book. Maybe the film left out a critical plot point where it’s discovered that the people are actually extra-terrestrials, explaining some of their strange behavior.

The best example is a scene when a bad storm has just hit the island and Jim and Tania are holed up in their cabin when they realize that, still trapped outside in the storm, is their son Eric (Eric, I should mention, is almost never referred to by his proper name by his father; instead, he is addressed simply as “boy.”) Jim runs outside to try and find his son, but gives up after falling in the river when he tries crossing the bridge to get to the other side where he presumes his son may be. Wait … what? He just gives up? What parent does that? What parent, if there child was in a potentially life-threatening situation, wouldn’t do everything they could to try and save their kid’s life – unless … Jim is secretly hoping that the “boy” is dead. Then there’s Tania, whose reaction to Jim’s seemingly uncaring behavior is not the anguished cry of a mother whose only son might be dead.

“We’ll try again in the morning. It’s his own fault,” Jim tells Tania. “We taught ‘boy’ not to panic and he won’t. He’ll be alright.”

Tania smiles and nods her head, the ever-obedient wife.

The film cuts back to Eric, who looks like he’s about to be blown away to Oz.

Jim was right. It was Eric’s fault. Right before the storm hit, Jim told Eric to go straight back to the cabin. Eric was distracted, however, when he saw something that looked suspiciously like a golden seal.

Regardless, Jim’s “Oh well…” attitude is strange. Who are these strange people? What did they do with Eric’s real parents?

The supporting characters aren’t any less puzzling. The people of the closest town where Jim and his family go for supplies make fun of Jim for believing in the golden seal legend. Jim doesn’t help the situation, telling everyone he meets about how he claims to have seen the golden seal seven years ago. One man, Crawford, thinks there might be some truth in Jim’s delusions – despite the fact that everyone else in the town tells him that Jim’s a nutcase. Despite all signs pointing to the golden seal legend being totally bogus, and without the existence of snopes.com to verify or disprove the legend, Crawford heads out to where Jim lives in the middle of a dangerous storm – because Crawford is crazy. And who isn’t a little crazy in this movie? I’m starting to think perhaps there is no seal, since no sane person ever sees the seal. Only Jim, Eric, Crawford and a couple of Asian guys pretending to be Eskimos.

If anything, The Golden Seal answered the nagging question: “Why aren’t there more movies which revolve around seals?” The answer is that seals make terrible noises. They sound like a dying dog. There is no way around the horrible sounds that seals make and nobody wants to watch an hour and ½ of seal noises. Nobody.

Director Frank Zuniga, whose previous work included live-action nature programs for Disney, does a competent enough job directing The Golden Seal. He does tend to go overboard with his use of slow-motion, especially in an extended scene of Eric frolicking around in the water with the golden seal and her pup. The movie also features some good actors and actresses, including character actor Steve Railsback (Ed Gein, Lifeforce, Helter Skelter) as Jim, Penelope Milford (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Coming Home) as Tania, and Michael Beck (Swan from The Warriors) as Crawford. But the script is painfully bad. Crappy story + sloppy dialogue = shitty movie. Someone should have clubbed this seal to death. A movie this lacking in redeemable qualities deserves to be put down.

From the soundtrack – “The Golden Seal Suite” composed by John Barry

Next week: Arizona

Follow Matt on Twitter at @CM_MattDunn.

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