Monday, November 14, 2016

David Welky's "A Wretched and Precarious Situation"

David Welky is the author of The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937, The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II, and other books. He is a professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas.

Here Welky dreamcasts an adaptation of his latest book, A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier:
A Wretched and Precarious Situation is a nonfiction narrative about a remarkable Arctic expedition to explore a mysterious landmass that famous explorer Robert E. Peary spotted in the Arctic Ocean in 1906. Peary named his find “Crocker Land” in honor of a generous donor named George Crocker. Scientists dubbed Crocker Land “the last great geographical problem left to the world for solution,” and concluded that it encompassed around 500,000 square miles, which would make it the second largest island in the world.

In 1913 one of Peary’s acolytes, Donald MacMillan, assembled a party to follow Peary’s footsteps and explore Crocker Land. As is usually the case with these things, the expedition went horribly wrong (no one wants to read a book about the Arctic where everything goes swimmingly). The seven Americans who comprise the team endure shipwrecks, starvation, bitter cold, biting winds, brutal icepacks, and even murder during a four-year exile in the extreme north. They eventually unlock the riddle of Crocker Land only to reveal another, deeper mystery that hints at a dark secret that MacMillan could never have anticipated.

I actually wrote A Wretched and Precarious Situation with an actor in mind. In an ideal world, the part of Donald MacMillan would be played by Ed Harris. Harris, with his thinning hair, piercing gaze, and weathered look, is a dead ringer for MacMillan. His performance as astronaut John Glenn in The Right Stuff proves that he can play a sensitive leader of men, and his work in Westworld shows that he can stand tall against an Arctic blizzard.

Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world. Harris is sixty-six years old, whereas MacMillan was only thirty nine when he went chasing after Crocker Land. Harris is a gifted actor, but he can’t shed three decades for a film.

A younger actor is needed, so I would cast Chris Pine, best known for playing Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek series. Pine is about the right age (36), has a suitably steely expression, and can grow a nice beard—essential for an Arctic explorer. He also tough without being bulky, commanding without being domineering, and exhibits a rebellious streak that would come in handy when playing a man who loved climbing cliffs and church steeples.

Robert Peary was a world-famous figure, but he plays a relatively small part in A Wretched and Precarious Situation. Sam Elliott gets the nod for this supporting role. Contact lenses will turn his green-brown eyes into Peary’s steel gray ones, and a face tanned and beaten by countless outdoor shoots for Westerns will look perfect when wrapped in a (fake) fur hood set against a field of ice.

Teddy Roosevelt also makes a brief appearance, giving a bombastic speech in which he proclaims that “it would be a fine thing for America if the discovery of Crocker Land could be placed to our credit as a nation.” My sense is that TR would insist on playing himself. That’s not going to happen, of course, so I’m bringing in Jack Black for a cameo. His histrionics suit the part and, hidden behind thick, pince-nez glasses, most viewers won’t even realize it’s him before he hustles off screen with an enthusiastic “bully!”
The Page 99 Test: The Thousand-Year Flood.

--Marshal Zeringue