City of Gold

City of Gold


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This classic short film from Pierre Berton depicts the Klondike gold rush at its peak, when would-be prospectors struggled through harsh conditions to reach the fabled gold fields over 3000 km north of civilization. Using a collection of still photographs, the film juxtaposes the Dawson City at the height of the gold rush with its bustling taverns and dance halls with the more tranquil Dawson City of the present.

One day I had a call from the head of photographs from Public Archives who wanted me to come over to look at stills photographs that had come down from Dawson City. There were 200 photographs shot by A. E. Hegg during the Gold Rush in 1898-99. They had been found some time before in wooden boxes in a sod-roofed log house. They were 8x10 glass plate negatives. These found their way to White Horse, where a representative from Ottawa Archives ordered a set. I called Wolf Koenig and Bob Verrall to come to Ottawa Archives to look at the prints. They were both excited. I decided to get Tom Daly involved and he was very impressed. We began to discuss Dawson City and found out that we knew nothing about it. Hugh O'Connor at the NFB knew a mounted policeman who had worked in Dawson City and invited him to come for dinner. He was full of incredible stories, and we decided we had to film in Dawson.

In June, 1954 Wolf and I flew to Dawson City to make a film. Dawson was overwhelming in all respects. There was no night--just day. It was a ghost town. It was the headquarters of a big gold-mining company still working on the creeks with huge dredges and hydraulic operations. A thousand workers came in every summer and left in the winter. The gold-mining area was hundreds of square miles called "the creeks." There were hotels like Pearl's Harbour, a favourite of American flyers during the war, with a bar--no restaurant. There were three bars in Dawson, and one restaurant working continuously, run by a Japanese black belt called Mitch. He needed the belt! There was a large hospital and a court house that was in session with a judge trying a murder trial. We decided to take that in--after one morning we felt sick.

The scale of everything was so huge and strange that we fell to arguing about what we should shoot or not shoot. There were too many visual riches. But, what was there of the Gold Rush? A lot of beautiful decayed abandoned buildings and a few ancient old men left from the Gold Rush. There were too many great photographic possibilities and some ancient old guys still panning gold if you could find them in the woods---and we did. One had been a silent movie comedian, Pete Huley, who still claimed that Charlie Chaplain stole his style and walk. He was authentic and there was a film in the Nugget Theatre, we were told. Pete was certain that we had come to work with him. He had a script ready.

An old man named Lorenz talked in German with Wolf. He had fought with the American Cavalry in the Geronimo and Sitting Bull wars, and we were certain from his stories that he had! Doctor Roux confirmed this with not a moment’s hesitation. We were angry that we did not have sync sound equipment. The mythology of Dawson was extravagant.

We were in Dawson six weeks and shot two films, Gold and City of Gold. There were all the stills to deal with--mountains of them and I found more in Edmonton as we were coming home.

Colin Low
From the playlist: Colin Low: Recollections from a Distinguished Career

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  • direction
    Colin Low
    Wolf Koenig
  • photography
    Colin Low
    Wolf Koenig
  • script
    Roman Kroitor
  • music
    Eldon Rathburn
  • commentary
    Pierre Berton
  • animation camera
    Douglas Roberts
  • sound recording
    George Croll
  • producer
    Tom Daly
  • editing
    Tom Daly
  • narrator
    Pierre Berton

  • None

    I had never heard of "City of Gold" until I watched that miraculous film "Dawson City: Frozen in Time". And what a wonder "City of Gold" is! Beautifully shot, edited and told. It is interesting to see the so-called 'Ken Burns effect" - moving the camera over an old still photo and then coming to rest on a particular face or other details - employed two or three decades before Ken Burns is said to have "discovered" or "invented" it.

    None, 15 May 2021
  • ingrasp

    This film represents original documentary form at its best. Pierre Berton's narration is heartfelt and poetic and beautifully alludes to rewards and purpose far more elusive and meaningful than gold dust.

    ingrasp, 29 Feb 2016
  • CraigSymonds

    I wonder how many of those houses filled with treasures still exist?

    CraigSymonds, 19 Apr 2013
  • GregoryBrown

    I read about this film in a documentary text while a grad student in 1986. This was just before Ken Burns made use of the same stop-motion animation technique in "The Civil War." At the time, I could not find an affordable copy "City of Gold" on VHS tape. Thanks to the outstanding world cultural resource that is the National Film Board of Canada, I've been able to satisfy my curiosity – and appreciate for myself what a fine film this is. Thank you, Canada.

    GregoryBrown, 1 Apr 2012
  • markub

    documentary...? animated film...? masterpiece...!!!

    markub, 13 Jul 2010