Wings of Chance Commentary
If Tony Mokri hadn’t been working on a CPR sleeping car in the 1950s and found a book left behind by then Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, Wings of Chance might never have been made. The book contained a short story by John Patrick Gillese, called “Kirby’s Gander,” and Mokri thought it would make a good screenplay.
The original story, about the relationship that a downed bush pilot develops with a Canada Goose, and of how they survive together on the shores of a lake in the northern wilderness one summer, comes straight from the Canadian tradition of the “animal story,” a genre popularized in the late 1800s by writers such as Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton and hugely popular throughout Canada and the Unites States. This brand of story-telling celebrates nature through the lives, or “biographies,” of individual animals.
Prior to Seton and Roberts, most nature stories had emphasized how dangerous or threatening it was to be in the Canadian wilderness. This older view of nature had been imported by settlers and explorers from Europe, where the image of the forest was generally as a dark and brooding force. Think of Mirkwood in J.R.R. Tolkein, or the forest where Hansel and Gretel were nearly eaten by a witch.
By the late nineteenth century in Canada, the “forest” had become familiar to most Canadians through decades of scientific writing, mapping, and settlement. People worked and lived in the Canadian wilderness. And their success in doing so came partly through learning about and respecting nature. In literary works by Seton, Roberts and other writers, nature became a positive feature of the protagonist’s world, if not a character in its own right.
Half a century later, in the 1950s, short stories like “Kirby’s Gander” and the movie it inspired, Wings of Chance, relied on such well-known conventions as the man who is lost in the wilderness, but who has survival skills that will ensure his eventual rescue by others, if he does not act to save himself. A related convention was that rescue might come as the result of a personal relationship with an animal. Canadian and American audiences of the post-war era would have recognized and understood stories built on these conventions.
They would also have respected the central character: the bush pilot. In both literature and film, the bush pilot was a hero patterned on the dashing days of early aviation in the north. These brave men, who regularly risked their own lives to save those of others and whose stellar careers as World War I fighter pilots, became legendary symbols for the values of northern culture: courage, steadfastness, integrity, and skill. Add to this heady mix, the “friendship” and assistance of the iconic Canada Goose, and a movie couldn’t go wrong. Indeed, Universal Pictures, which bought the film from producer Larry Matanski, made $9 million distributing it to American audiences.
The story of Wings of Chance is simple and predictable. Steve Kirby (James Brown), a bush pilot based in Jasper National Park, sets out on a routine flight to a northern community where people are counting on him to pick up and deliver cargo. His plane ought to have been piloted by his young and irresponsible partner, Johnny Summers (Richard Tretter); however, Johnny has got himself in trouble with the law. In a fit of jealousy over Arlene Baker (Frances Rafferty), a girl whom both pilots love, Johnny has illegally landed their plane on the lake at Jasper Park Lodge, where Arlene works.
A red-coated Mountie (Len Crowther) politely leads Johnny off to chokey, where he is fined and relieved of his license to fly. For a month, Johnny will be grounded. All of this means that Steve Kirby will now have to fly the plane without its having been serviced for an oil leak. Not surprisingly, the leak gets much worse during the flight. Kirby veers off course to avoid a storm and crashes on the shores of Moon Lake. Though unhurt, he hasn’t been able to make contact with anyone to let them know where he is. The rescue mission can’t find him.
Meanwhile, Kirby remains calm, discovering that, even though his immature partner has left the survival gear in a mess, there is a rifle with three bullets; some snare wire; and a fishing rod with one lure. With these meager supplies, he sets up camp and sustains himself over the next several months by fishing and snaring rabbits. To his delight, early on, he realizes that he has landed close to a breeding pair of Canada geese. The gander tries to run him off, so Kirby obligingly moves away. He admires the courage of the gander and is later able to save it from a wolf attack. Even though the bird’s wing has been rendered useless, the gander persists in raising its brood of three goslings. Kirby develops an attachment to the gander, holding conversations with it, yet respecting it as a wild animal. Slowly a plan hatches in Kirby’s mind. Attaching a metal band to the leg of a gosling, he etches his name and location into the band, hoping that someone will find the bird during its southward migration. Of course, the bird is found, the authorities notified, and all is well in the end.
While Wings of Chance features touristic aerial views of the Canadian Rockies, it is nothing more than a feel-good animal story for a family audience. The plot is completely transparent, the dialogue is weak and the characterization negligible. Although the movie was made for only $200,000 and shot with one camera, producer Matanski had hopes of selling it to an American buyer as appealing to the American appetite for the topography of the Rocky Mountain parks. River of No Return, with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum, had just been shot in Banff. And there had been a long history of using Alberta’s national parks as settings for Hollywood productions. Matanski was therefore taking a calculated risk in producing the first Canadian feature film set in Alberta.
Stills photographer on the movie and Matanski’s friend, Bill Marsden, says that the producer was trying, with Wings of Chance and with a subsequent feature, The Naked Flame, to provide a training ground for Canadian crews and the beginnings of a provincial film industry. However, financial losses on the second movie deterred Matanski from making any further movies.