Friday, February 9, 2018

O CANADA! BLOGATHON: The Incredible Journey (1963)


Once again, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy turn the spotlight on Canadian connections to classic movies with the O Canada! blogathon running from February 9th to 11th.




Sheila Burnford
May 11, 1918 - April 20, 1984

Scottish-born author Sheila Burnford (born Cochrane) was a well-educated and well-traveled young woman when she became a volunteer ambulance driver during WW2. It was during that time that she met and married Dr. David Burnford. Enforced time apart from her husband during this early part of her marriage led to Sheila acquiring a Bull Terrier called Bodger and nicknamed "Bill". The woman and the dog became close companions during the years of blackouts and fear, creating a deep bond.


Dr. Burnford relocated his pediatric practice to Port Arthur, Ontario (Thunder Bay since 1970 amalgamation) in 1949. The Burnford family now consisted of three daughters, Peronelle, Elizabeth, Juliet, along with Bill. During this time the Burnfords acquired a Siamese cat, Simon, who formed a strong connection with Bill. Later, Dr. Burnford brought a Labrador into the fold. When old Bill was losing his eyesight, the young dog would assist him on walks through the woods.

Mrs. Burnford was writing short stories and articles about life in Canada for British publications during this time. She was also received the Ontario Play Puppet Award for scripts written for the Port Arthur Puppeteers.


The Incredible Journey was based on the three beloved pets and is a thrilling story based on Mrs. Burnford's obvious love for the animals and of nature. Published first in Great Britain in 1961, the book was well received, but would receive greater recognition after the release of the Disney film version two years later.  The Incredible Journey was awarded the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Books Award, the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award, the American Library Association Aurianne Award, and the International Board on Books for Young People Honour.


Mrs. Burnford's other words include Bel Ria: Dog of War, The Fields of Noon and One Woman's Arctic, detailing two summers on Baffin Island. The Burnford family returned to England prior to her death from cancer at age 65. Long Walk Home, the Incredible Journey of Sheila Burnford is a 2017 documentary tribute to her life and accomplishments.


When Disney acquired the rights to film The Incredible Journey, it would complete the studio's trio of Canadian-based animal stories that began with 1961s Nikki, Wild Dog of the North based on the novel by James Oliver Curwood, and 1962s Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard. All three films were filmed partially in Canada, with the four northern Ontario locations for The Incredible Journey lending authenticity to Burnford's story.

James Algar
June 11, 1912 - February 26, 1998

Disney Legend James Algar adapted the screenplay. Originally an animator at the studio in the 1930s who directed The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Algar was later the writer and director of the True Life Adventures.

Rex Allen
December 31, 1920 - December 17, 1999

Singer Rex Allen aka the Arizona Cowboy, star of B westerns for Republic and the TV series Frontier Doctor narrated Algar's script, as he did for 1962s The Legend of Lobo. His recognizable voice told us Disney stories from Charlie the Lonesome Cougar to Run, Appaloosa, Run, and more, including voices at Disneyland attractions. His was the perfect warm and low-key narration.

Fletcher Markle
March 27, 1921 - May 23, 1991

The Incredible Journey was directed by Winnipeg born Fletcher Markle who began his show business career as an actor/host on Canadian radio, adding producer, writer, and director to his career skills. He moved from Vancouver to Toronto, and then to New York City and CBS radio where he took Studio One to television. The bulk of his career from this point is as a producer and director of television. Alongside The Incredible Journey, Markle directed the films Jigsaw, Night Into Morning, and The Man with a Cloak.

Emile Genest
July 27, 1921 - March 19, 2003

Quebec born Emile Genest was featured in all three of these Disney features. Genest balanced a film career with one foot in Quebec and one in Hollywood. He was Gemini nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a support role for the popular and acclaimed movie Les Plouffes. In addition to American movies such as these from Disney and The Cincinnati Kid, Emile Genest appeared on American classic television programs such as The Virginian, Ironside and Combat!, etc.

The cast of humans in this telling of the story is made of Canadian actors, and actors who immigrated to Canada such as Jan Rubes.

In The Incredible Journey Genest plays John Longridge, a writer who has taken in the three pets of his friends the Hunters. Professor Hunter has been offered a job in the U.K. and while the entire family, including the couple's two children will be traveling, there is the problem of what to do with Bodger the Bull Terrier, Luath the Labrador, and Tao the Siamese cat. In a moment of generosity, Longridge offered to care for the animals.

The self-sufficient cat adapted easily enough. The old bulldog is confused, but appreciates the affection afforded by the new master. The young lab is perpetually anxious for the familiar voices he loves. It is autumn and Longridge will soon be leaving on an annual hunting trip. He considered taking the animals, but there would be much canoe travel and it could become complicated. Mr. and Mrs. Oaks, who care for the house and grounds, have become attached to the pets and they will be well attended during Longridge's absence.


Miscommunication and happenstance come into play as Longridge leaves on his trip, Mrs. Oakridge is late to feed the pets, and Luath takes the lead. Home is calling him and home he must go. Also, he must take his companions along. There is no question as to that, and after some hesitation, it is a trio that sets out into the wilderness.


The journey is fraught with peril: hunger, cold, isolation, injury. Encounters include those with a protective mother bear, and a waterfall. Injured Tao finds respite and a home with a lonely little girl, but instinct leads him away. Luath feels trapped when help is at hand. In an amusing incident our trio almost finds a warm meal with an old hermit, but he has forgotten some of the niceties of hosting our more civilized animal friends.


Through it all the attachment of these three creatures, and of them to their family, is steadfast. So engrossed are we as the adventure unfolds that it is almost a shock to finally meet the Hunters. They have returned from their sojourn, and so has John Longridge. Rangers have been included in the search for the pets, but little hope is to be found that these house reared animals could survive in the vast and dangerous nature.


This is not a spoiler as we all know and relish in the happiness of the ending of The Incredible Journey. Every news story of an animal beating the odds to return home is headlined a "true life incredible journey".

The Incredible Journey, both book and film, is a story of loyalty and perseverance told with a sincere beauty that has been a touchstone for generations. I am sure I am not alone in the belief as a youngster that it was based on a true story. It was heartening to learn it was based on true characters.


"They must have thought the cat kept a diary!"

- Sheila Burnford on reviewers who commented on her convincing writing.



Bonus shout out (after a reminder from Rich) to the 1993 Disney remake, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey with the voices of Don Ameche as Shadow, Canadian born Michael J. Fox as Chance, and Sally Field as Sassy.












23 comments:

  1. I thought this sounded a lot like HOMEWARD BOUND, so I looked it up: that's the remake of this (featuring Canadian Michael J. Fox as one of the voice actors).

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    1. I should have included something about the remake in this piece. Forgot all about the Michael J. Fox connection. I should have talked to you first.

      The kids LOVED Homeward Bound and watched it over and over. At the end when Don Ameche as Shadow says to the kid, "Peter, I was so worried about you." Garry and I are an absolute mess and have to leave the room sobbing. Hey, maybe the kids watched it to embarrass us. That's not the way it's supposed to work. Sneaky kids.

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  2. Bahaha! I love the quote at the end: "They must have thought the cat kept a diary!"

    I must re-watch this film (and read the book, too). I remember seeing this on television when I was a kid, and how I was SO ANXIOUS for the animals to return home.

    Sheila Burnford sounds like a remarkable woman – I will try to track down the documentary on her life.

    Thanks so much for joining the blogathon and for highlighting a truly unique contribution to Canadian literature and film.

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    1. My pleasure. Thanks for hosting this blogathon. I found I still had my old copy of The Incredible Journey to re-read, and I might not have done that otherwise. I bought a new copy to give my niece for her birthday this summer. Sheila Burnford's legacy is great.

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  3. This film was a childhood favorite of mine. It's wonderful to hear some of the back story on how it came to be. I had no idea it was based on real pets and that makes me love it even more.

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    1. I first saw this at the theatre with my dad and sister. How my heart was in my throat the whole time. So anxious for those brave pets. I'm glad you enjoyed this read and learned something to make the story even more special.

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  4. Lovely review. I don't even know this movie. It sounds wonderful. I'll track it down. :)

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    1. A charming and unique movie that I hope you will find a pleasure.

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  5. Thanks for the fun insight and backstory of a movie I've always wanted to see, but for whatever odd reason never have! I think it's great that the three animals are based on the author's pets...very cool. I have no desire to see the remake, but now after reading your post, I WILL watch the original!

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    1. The remake put a lot of cheeky humour into the dialogue they provided for the pets, and for those that grew up with it I am sure it "their" movie. However, my viewer connection to the three animals who don't speak was never lessened by that fact. It feels more "real".

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  6. Thanks for this insightful look back at a film I watched often in my younger days, and always looked for in the TV listings in those pre-cable, VHS, DVD years.

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    1. Thank you. I can't watch this movie without feeling like a kid again.

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  7. Super choice and write-up as always, a childhood fave of mine as well and a joy to rediscover. One thing that tickles me about this is that the Coen brothers included the movie poster and travelling kitty as 'clues' to the meaning of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Thanks for joining in!

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    1. Thanks, Kristina.

      So, the Coen Brothers can be included in the group of kids that saw The Incredible Journey. I shouldn't be surprised.

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  8. Disney movies with animals are just my cup of tea! I haven't watched this one, but it was nice to know its backstory. Awesome post!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!

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    1. It is a charming and classic movie that I am sure you will enjoy. Thanks so much for reading.

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  9. I loved learning the background to this Disney classic, which I have seen many times. We have had two yellow Labs as a members of our family, so you can guess which animal I gravitated to. I much prefer the original over the remake because it tells much of the story simply through the visuals.

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    1. Let me guess about that character!

      I agree. The authentic charm of the first version touches me the same today as it did all those years ago (I had to count!).

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  10. Oh boy! Now you got me all eager to look into Sheila Burnford's works ( as well as viewing that documentary ). She sounds like the female twin of Paul Gallico. Thank you for putting James Algar's picture up there. I wrote a piece about him a few years ago; he is an unsung hero in my book. Incredible Journey is such an incredible movie, too, and it's amazing what patience the film crew must have had to put it together. Emile Genest is kind-hearted here ( as he is in Big Red ) but he was such a beast in Nikki, Wild Dog of the North....another great "Canadian" film.

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    1. I appreciate the depth of Canadian involvement in this Canadian story. Disney knew their stuff, especially with Algar in charge.

      The unofficial Canadian trilogy would be a good topic one of these days when Leonard Maltin opens that Disney vault for TCM. Maybe on Canada Day!

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  11. Considering when it was originally released I doubt I was taken to it, but I vaguely remember seeing this in a theater when I was a kid, so it must have been a re-release. (Whatever happened to re-releases?)

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    1. I saw this at the theatre around the same time I saw a re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Actually, my first at-the-movies experience was a re-release of Lady and the Tramp. We took our daughter to Pinocchio in 1993. It was a grand way to see classics.

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  12. Canadian actor John Drainie was in this. He played Professor Hunter. His daughter wrote a fascinating book about him.

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