Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
Sometimes finding a film you’ve never seen before can be a strange parallel world experience. You wonder why it was never ever on your radar. It’s as if somebody reached into the past and just, put it there. It’s true that international releases for US movies were sometimes, selective, leaving many U.S. domestic release either in limbo, without promotion or even without a good enough distributor. The Mother Lode is such a movie. It came out of nowhere, and it’s actually pretty good.
The list of “successful” family projects, particularly producing and directing teams in the movie industry is a very short list. We’re more used to seeing acting parents performing with their acting offspring, with mixed results, good and bad. The family geared passion project comes with both risk and opportunity. Results depended on two things: a mutual understanding of the manner and execution of film, and a shared vision for a story worth telling well.
It was a surprise to see Charlton Heston not only direct, but to share his directing cap with his son, Fraser Heston, who was present behind the camera while his father threw himself into the role of a disturbed survivor on screen. Fraser (and his sister Holly) quite literally grew up on film sets. Fraser knew his father well enough to understand his creative intent, and also, there was a strong bond that guaranteed the motivation to resolve issues during production.
Since The Mother Lode (1982), they also collaborated under the wing of their family production company Agamemnon Films — with two made for T.V. movies, Treasure Island (1990) and The Crucifer of Blood (1991), and most notably, the 1996 survival story Alaska.
A lot of films where they were able to get away from it all. A coincidence?
In this story, an aircraft pilot goes missing while searching for gold in the inner wilderness of British Columbia. His wife, Andrea Spalding, played by Kim Basinger, joins forces with a scurrilous rascal pilot — friend to the missing pilot — Jean Dupre, played by Rocky Zantolas. Dupre’s conflicted motives meant that, behind the search for the missing pilot, there was greed. There is most certainly a chance to find gold in the nearby mines. Phantom bagpipes lead Andrea and Jean to find the dishevelled and disturbed hermit — a typical frontier guardian of the nearby mine — Silas McGee.
Survival is the key for the Mother Lode, both environmental and the human factor, burdened with greed and madness. The rock climbing sequences were masterful and claustrophobic. The cave scenes were as well lit as cave scenes generally can be — without having to break the rules of reality.
To be honest, I don’t think they really cared much about the fact that they’d chosen to film in and about the wilderness. They were able to get away from it all for the entirety of the shoot. It must have been beautiful out there. A far cry from the hollywood studio which at this time was going through considerable changes.
It was Fraser who wrote the screenplay for the Mother Lode, which was influenced by the acclaimed 1948 western adventure, Treasure of Sierra Madre, which, in addition to starring Humphrey Bogart, it also co starred Walter Huston, the father of that film’s director, John Huston. That influence carried the stamp of family collaboration. It is interesting to note that Lydia Heston, Charlton’s wife of 64 years, was also on the payroll as a stills photographer for the project.
Charlton’s portrayal of McGee allowed him to add a Scottish accent to his repertoire. Although there was really no need for the typical Scottish distinction, the addition of bagpipe playing provided a ghostly feel to the movie. It was used appropriately to add texture within the overall sound design that ultimately foreshadowed danger.
Overall the film is a well-paced and highly watchable thriller. The aerial footage of the planes going over mountains, across lakes and valleys adds grandeur to the piece.
Not everything happened according to the script, as it is noted that the floatplane was not meant to have crash-landed in the waters. That it was filmed meant that the incident was able to be included into the picture, and remains as one of the most memorable scenes, and a happy accident that added to the complexity of what could have been a very simple “cat chases mouse while mouse hunts for cheese” kind of movie. If you like Charlton Heston doing the crazy thing (in a subtle way, not in the Nicholas Cage sense of crazy) then you will enjoy this movie.