Director Stewart Raffill spent the ’70s making sincere adventure movies with family-friendly themes. While it’s easy to slag these pictures as manipulative hokum, Rafill approached his material rigorously, capturing beautiful nature shots while conveying worthwhile notions of honor and individualism and loyalty. The worst of these pictures are cutesy and maudlin, but the best of them, including When the North Wind Blows, strive for the scope and weight of literature—so even though When the North Wind Blows never quite hits the target, it’s a respectable attempt. Furthermore, compared to other nature dramas released under the Sunn Classic Pictures banner during the Me Decade, When the North Wind Blows is unusual inasmuch as it’s not about Americans. Instead, it’s about Russians living near Siberia.
Following a prologue that sets up one particular character as the narrator, the movie proper begins by introducing the relationship between Avakum (Henry Brandon), a reclusive mountain man, and Boris (Herbert Nelson), a shopkeeper in a small village. Once a year, Avakum descends from his hunting grounds in the high mountains to sell wares and buy supplies. Circumstances lead to a misunderstanding after the accidental death of a local boy, so villagers blame Avakum for the tragedy, turning him into a fugitive. The story follows his quest to survive in the mountains during a brutal winter, with predators including lions and tigers prowling around him, then shifts into melodramatic mode once Boris realizes that newly uncovered facts have exonerated his friend, necessitating a wilderness trek to deliver word of salvation.
The humorless plot trudges along without much momentum, though Rafill generates some vivid episodes. When the North Wind Blows looks good, with rugged locations and terrific animal footage, but the characterizations are so thin that only very sympathetic viewers will form any emotional attachment to the people onscreen. It doesn’t help that the movie periodically drifts into pointless subplots, as when another mountain man (Dan Haggerty) recalls his magical encounter with a white tiger. Still, Rafill renders a fairly consistent mood, all hushed and wintry, while celebrating the iconoclastic nature of men willing to brave the elements if doing so removes them from the trivialities of civilization. When the North Wind Blows falls well short of the standards set by the similarly themed Jeremiah Johnson (1972), but folks who enjoyed that picture’s core values might find modest pleasures here.
When the North Wind Blows: FUNKY