Sauna in Cinema: "North to Alaska," John Wayne cleans up

An odd thing happened while I was reading an old Finnish-enthusiast website about saunas. I came across a reference to a sauna in a Hollywood movie that starred John Wayne, North To Alaska. Here's a well-known American movie that includes both Alaska and saunas. As someone who is interested in both--and the connection between the two--maybe the scene in the movie would have some historical insights? What were saunas like during the Alaska gold rush? Or, more realistically, how did Hollywood perceive bathing during the Alaska gold rush.

The film North to Alaska is not remembered as being either a good movie nor a worthy historical depiction of the Alaska gold rush. Filmed in 1960 it was mostly churned out for John Wayne to fulfill contract obligations and to exploit the news story of Alaska's recent entry into the Union as the 49th state in 1959. The movie was started even before the storyline--to say nothing of the script--was established.

Much of the film was set in what was supposed to be Nome at the turn of the century. (For something more real, I wrote about an old Finnish gold miner's sauna who was a blacksmith during the Nome gold rush here.) The Nome gold rush took place right while the Klondike gold rush was petering out, roughly between 1899 and 1909. Nome was an incredibly rich gold rush and it was a democratic one, allowing latecomers to mine gold off the beach.


There were somethings that the film got right about Alaska and/or the Nome gold rush. Some of the opening title credit paintings seem fairly accurate and might have even been drawn off of actual historic photographs of mining on the beach. I like how the sun is low on the horizon.


Others were completely absurd. The title page shows totem poles. This is a complete fallacy since totem poles and their associated indigenous culture were over a thousand miles away in an entirely different bio-region.


There are scenes of the Nome beach which accurately depict the lack of a port and use of barges for landing, but inaccurately there are hills in the background. It should be noted that Nome just below the arctic circle. Those hills certainly don't look like arctic tundra. The paintings are actually a more accurate depiction of the sub-arctic terrain.


The miners' claim cabins are located in an area that bares absolutely no resemblance to Alaska. It sure looks like California desert scrub though. You aren't going to see trees like that near Nome.

So historical accuracy is a mixed bag. How about with the bath house? The original website that lead me to this movie was not very complementary of the movie's integrity toward saunas. The author said: Real Finnish saunas are not like what "you see in the movies where John Wayne is in a 'sauna' in North to Alaska with pipes puffing steam and everyone dressed to the hilt." 

After seeing the scene myself I think this bears some reconsidering. On the contrary, I was actually really impressed with the sauna set. The first thing to note is that the sauna was introduced as an "original Russian steam bath." This means that it was something different than a sauna. The production was intentionally trying to recreate a banya. While there are a lot of similarities between saunas and banyas, often banyas incorporate more water and steam. Banya goers are certainly passionate about their bathing but they tend to not be as fastidious about exact protocol and the proper amount of water on the rocks as Finns.

Maybe not coincidentally Russian banyas are very much a part of Alaska culture. It should be remembered that Alaska was a colony of Russia from the 1700s to 1867. During this time Russians left their mark on the local communities. Part of this was introducing their version of sweat bathing to the territory. It lives on today in many areas where the Russians remained active or resettled, sometimes we see what are considered to be banyas, but in native villages, particularly in Y'upik cultures of southwest Alaska, they have evolved into their own entity: a bath house called muk'eevik.  

In Alaska most village saunas aren't called sauna. They're called steams or steam baths. This, in part, is due to the fact that typically they are hotter and use a lot more water on the rocks. 



When I saw the Russian steam bath scene I couldn't believe it. Here John Wayne is about to dump water on the rocks. Look closely at the set. The rocks appear to be in a metal cage that sits on a rail car. The rails lead into a fireplace. Even though it's a totally fake movie stage, the idea is amazing! The rail car with rock cage would sit over the fire. The fire would heat the rocks and then the rail car could be pulled out of the fire to heat the room, hot rocks and no smoke! Dump water on the rock and, voila, steamy banya bliss.

Where did this come from? This isn't something that a set designer would concoct on their own. They must have experienced something like this somewhere. Sauna culture back then was something that was part of ethnic cultures and there were certainly more public bathing houses. For example in Astoria, Oregon up until a few years ago, there was a public sauna, the Union Steam Baths, to serve the large Finnish community there. It was a tradition that wasn't really written about. Bathing culture was transmitted by experience from one user to another. Maybe I'm wrong but in 1960 I don't think this was something you could look up in a book.
My best guess is that there was an authentic Russian bath house somewhere in Hollywood back in the 1950s that influenced this set.

But wait, there's more
And then another amazing thing happens in this scene: John Wayne grabs a bunch of tree branches and starts whacking himself. Somehow a 1960s set designer had knowledge of the Russian veynik or venik, otherwise known in Finnish as vihta or vasta.  


Whack, whack, whack. Here the wonderfully quirky actor, Ernie Kovacs, enters the steambath, looking to con John Wayne out of his latest gold earnings.

But wait! There's even more!
To the nerd sauna enthusiast like myself this should have been enough. The Russian steam bath scene is at the beginning of a not very good movie. As your faithful correspondent I figured it was my duty to watch the movie through to the bitter end so I could report on it accurately.

I was totally floored when, toward the later third of the movie, I had another big surprise that is relevant to the world of Tinygogo: the miners' cabins of the main characters are located right on top of a natural mineral hot springs. Weird.

Further research turned up that the set was created on top of Hot Creek Hot Springs, in California in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. The cabins, with the springs right next to them, are present in the background of many of the scenes in the later part of the movie. Even though these hot springs are never used or mentioned in the movie, the bellowing steam must have added some romantic Western or Alaskan appeal. Maybe there was a bathing scene that used them that was later cut? (At one point John Wayne angrily goes outside saying he's going to take a bath.) It is odd that there is no mention of them at all but here are cabins built over the bubbling water. 




You can see the water steaming away as the wagon approaches.

Set design was credited to Walter M. Scott and Stuart A. Reiss, one is dead the other is in his nineties. I suspect one of these two had an appetite for gourmet bathing. We'll probably never know. They had to have known and experienced saunas and hot springs. Obviously, in their minds this was an important aspect to the experience of the West or somehow in their romantic impression of Alaska.