Review: The Island at the Top of the World (1974 movie)

The film begins with David Hartman, playing an expert on Nordic history and archaeology, summoned to the home of a wealthy British industrialist (Donald Sinden). It seems Sinden’s estranged son had gone missing in the Arctic but some evidence has emerged of where he might be. Sinden is mounting a rescue expedition by airship, and it has belatedly occurred to him that having an expert on Scandinavia along would be a help.

Hartman agrees to join the crew, and in very little screen time they’re airborne in a dirigible. When Sinden’s impatience leads to the loss of a propeller, he insists there’s no time to land and effect repairs and volunteers to replace it in flight himself. But the French inventor and captain of the airship won’t allow it. “Only a fool would attempt such at thing!” he declares. “I will do it myself!”

Not long thereafter they reach a village in northern Greenland where they find a local (Mako, who years later played a wizard in Conan the Barbarian) who had worked as a guide for Sinden’s son.

Together Mako and the son had discovered an uncharted island in the far north that was home to an isolated colony of Vikings enjoying a very pleasant climate thanks to abundant hot springs. Sinden tries to persuade Mako to join the expedition to help them find that island, and when Mako refuses Sinden desperately resorts to kidnapping, though he later regrets his dishonorable behavior.

The plot moves right along with a decent variety of adventure in interesting settings. The Vikings they encounter speak Old Norse and Hartman proves himself useful by translating. (Actually, while they’re supposed to be speaking old Norse, the actors, from a variety of Scandinavian countries, just speak their various native languages.) That alone puts the film ahead of other adventures in which everybody for some reason speaks English.

On the other hand, the characters aren’t especially likable or well-realized. Sinden is mainly an arrogant pain in the ass, Hartman largely passive, and most of the rest cardboard with about one character trait apiece. The French airship captain and Mako are probably the most interesting people around, but they’re both stereotypes at the core. The lack of an actual hero may have contributed to the disappointing box office for a film that was very expensive to make. I should emphasize that despite those flaws it’s by no means awful, and at the age of 12 I might have really liked it.

The script was by John Whedon (grandfather of the better-known Joss Whedon), based on a 1961 novel, The Lost Ones, by Ian Cameron (pseudonym of James Vance Marshall).

David Hartman was the best-known actor in it from his work on television. In late 1975, about a year after this film’s release, he left acting to become a very popular co-host of Good Morning America, ABC’s answer to NBC’s Today Show. More recently he has done occasional documentaries broadcast on The Discovery Channel and PBS. He lives here in Durham, and a few years ago I nearly rented an office suite across the hall from David Hartman Productions, but ended up not taking it because it was farther than I wanted from my house. I never actually met him.


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