16 November 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
anything Yukon do...
'The Barrier' is based on a novel by Rex Beach, who wrote tales of two-fisted he-men. Oddly, in this story, the most sympathetic of the two-fisted he-men is named Gale Gaylord. Audiences for Rex Beach stories expected to see a good slug fest, as in his epic novel 'The Spoilers'. In 'The Barrier', there's a fistfight between Henry B Walthall and Lionel Barrymore, in which Walthall gives as good as he gets. However, Barrymore is so much burlier than Walthall that this sequence just isn't plausible.
The action begins in 1897, during the Klondike gold rush. Among the prospectors are kindly Gaylord and nasty Dan Bennett, a former sea captain who has now settled in the Yukon and acquired a Red Indian wife, by whom he has an infant daughter named Necia. When Bennett murders his wife, Gaylord kills him and takes away the orphaned baby girl.
Seventeen years on, Gaylord is a storekeeper in the Yukon and the little papoose Necia has grown up into the fetching Marceline Day, who doesn't look remotely Amerindian. Raised as Gaylord's daughter, she's now in love with Meade Burrell, an army lieutenant stationed in the region. The feeling is mutual, if only because Burrell wants to sleep next to a warm body on these cold Yukon nights.
SPOILERS LOOMING ON THE HORIZON. A ship arrives, captained by a knife-wielding varmint named Ben Stark. It turns out that Gaylord didn't kill Dan Bennett after all; Bennett merely used the evidence of his apparent death as a pretext to sneak away and start a new life for himself, under a new name. Yes, Stark is actually Gaylord's old enemy Bennett. When Stark sees Gaylord's daughter Necia, he knows straight off that this girl is actually his own daughter grown up. (She looks more like Walthall than like Barrymore, though.)
Stark is one of those guys who's mean just for the hell of it. When he finds out that Burrell is in love with his daughter Necia, he gleefully tells the lieutenant that Necia is only half white. This has the expected effect: Burrell is horrified, and he shuns the 'savage'.
Eventually, Bennett (now abandoning his Stark alias) abducts his daughter and tries to take her away aboard his ship. Burrell realises he loves her anyway (or maybe he only loves the white half of her), so he rushes to the rescue as the ship gets trapped in the ice floes. Captain Bennett drowns. The lovers are reunited.
There's some painful comedy relief from George Cooper as Burrell's NCO. The photography and art direction are excellent, well up to MGM's standard for this period. The brawl scene is well-staged and edited, but utterly spoilt by the mismatched physiques of Walthall and Barrymore. Marceline Day is too languid in her role as an igloo ingenue. Frankly, Day looks too delicate and frail to play a woman who's spent all her life in the Klondike. The actress who plays her mother in this film is also surnamed Day, but is no relation. Marceline Day had a respectable career in late silents. The talkies revealed that she had a very peculiar accent: in 'The Wild Party', Marceline Day pronounces the words 'college' and 'selfish' so that they sound like 'colleech' and 'selfeesh'. Talking pictures were not for her. I'll rate 'The Barrier' just 5 out of 10. Who let all that snow in here?