December 14, 2022
At first glance, “Cold River” looks like a run-of-the-mill “man against the winter elements” survival movie. Its plot is rudimentary: a guide takes his young daughter and stepson on a long camping trip in the Adirondack Mountains in the fall of 1932, when they encounter an unexpectedly premature and deadly winter. The father unexpectedly dies, leaving the daughter and her stepbrother to inevitably rely on each other in order to survive. Sounds fairly routine, right? Other, more famous pictures have variations on this very basic premise; “Alive,” “The Edge,” “The Grey”, and “The Revenant” come quickly to my mind. These particular films also have the benefit of higher budgets and therefore slicker Hollywood production values. The budget behind “Cold River”, on the other hand, is so obviously low that it nearly screams “Made For TV Movie.” With a largely unknown cast and its rather subtle (i.e. unspectacular) filmmaking approach, “Cold River” may look lower-scale compared to other similar winter survival movies.
Yet despite its overdone plot and technical shortcomings, “Cold River” manages to accomplish what those aforementioned pictures did not: showcasing the plight of youngsters struggling to survive in the face of natural danger. What “Cold River” lacks in high-budget production or over-the-top suspense, it makes up with heavier emphasis on acting, emotion, and a cast of child actors at the forefront. Films that pit children against nature’s peril are rare. Still, the movie effectively takes that cliched “Man vs Nature” concept and replaces it with kids fighting for their survival rather than adults, thus giving “Cold River” a special uniqueness which helps it stand out against the more popular competition within the genre.
Released 40 years ago, “Cold River” was adapted from the novel “Winterkill,” written by William Judson. The novel itself was named after the natural phenomenon when animals are met with a sudden and premature winter and are either frozen or starved to death as a result. “Cold River” is also distinctive for both taking place and being cinematically shot in the Adirondack Mountains. Its filmmakers make great use of the region’s luscious rivers and streams in the picture’s introductory scenes where the audience first meets its cast. Clearly, director Fred G. Sullivan wanted to use the Adirondacks as a character alongside the human cast. The natural landscape, like any good actor, should play itself with a degree of unpredictability in order to elicit those proper emotions from the audience. And indeed it does; the landscape transforms from a tranquil autumn vibe to a deadly winter that unleashes an icy hell upon its unsuspecting human cast.
Child actors Suzanne Weber and Pat Petersen portray stepsiblings Lizzy Allison and Tim Hood, the two young lead protagonists who would soon face incredible odds against them. Lizzy’s father Mike (Richard Jaeckel of “The Dirty Dozen” fame), an experienced Adirondacks guide, dutifully dotes on both his daughter and his stepson Tim. Together, the trio embark on what should be an ordinary camping and river-rafting adventure deep within the Adirondack wilds. But as the family continues down the river, Mike suffers from a sudden ailment (presumably a heart attack or stroke), which claims his life and leaves his two children without a father and guardian. From here, Lizzy and Tim are stranded and alone in a remote wilderness with a coming merciless winter threatening to swallow them whole. There’s nobody else out there left to care for them, except for each other.
One especially strong asset that “Cold River” is armed with is the chemistry between its two young leads. Lizzy and Tim don’t initially get along, as do most movie step siblings tend to be. In fact, their rivalry stems from a bitter hostility that almost derives from hate. Lizzy sees Tim as nothing more than a typical rambunctious young male lunkhead, while Tim resents his mother for marrying Mike and forcing them to become a blended family they didn’t wish for. The two kids’ mutual animosity is, of course, necessary to drive the film forward. Their animosity provides the creative inevitability that the two children must depend on each other in order to survive the natural peril around them. That inevitability is predictable, a plot device that’s required to push the film’s pace forward. Still, we become drawn to the kids’ plight thanks majorly in part to the two leads’ incredible acting. Their initial bitterness to the other turns to a burgeoning trust as both kids learn to pool their respective skills. Tim proves to be a strong hunter and food gatherer, while Lizzy is skillful at mending and constructing clothes. Both Weber and Petersen build such a strong emotional sibling bond, despite not sharing any blood, that the audience can’t help but ultimately root for them to get out of their mess. Never mind that certain illogical plot holes occasionally arise. For instance, once the wintry snowstorms hit, why don’t the kids face such physical risks as frostbite or hypothermia? Because we’re too busy being captivated by Weber and Petersen’s believable performances, that’s why.
Adding to the film’s cast is a who’s who of strong character actors from decades past. Robert Earl Jones (father of James Earl Jones) plays an aging trapper who provides Lizzy and Tim shelter in his cabin. Being an African-American, the trapper explains his fondness for living alone within the Adirondack wilderness due to his fear of racism from the mostly white citizens of neighboring towns (remember, “Cold River” takes place in 1932, at least three decades before the society-changing Civil Rights Movement). Lizzy tries hard to coax him to overcome his anxiety and venture into the towns. But, try as he might, the trapper contends living alone in the cold wilderness is safer than dealing with bigots. As the trapper, Jones gives a sympathetic performance that reminds the audience of the dangers of his lifestyle. Indeed, while he’s temporarily safe from racists, he still has to worry about the elements. During what is possibly the film’s strongest dramatic scene, the trapper laments:
“Hell ain’t no cold place, no, ma’am. I expect it’s cold…cold all the time.”
The kids soon learn too painfully well of what a cold hell might look like when they get ambushed by a drifter named Reuben Knat (Brad Sullivan). Knat, a violent outlaw, sets his sights on stealing food from the children, as well as having sinister intentions towards Lizzy. It remains fairly clear to us that Lizzy and Tim are resourceful enough to endure the unforgiving winterkill. But now, the kids’ quest for survival now becomes two-pronged. How will they contend with this human maniac? The ensuing battle of wits between Lizzy and Tim against Knat set in a cold, dark snowy night is a nail-biter that’s guaranteed to put audience members on the edge of their seats.
“Cold River” provides a quiet, character-enriched change of pace from the usual suspects of this cliched film subgenre. The film is solid proof that million dollar budgets aren’t necessary to pull off an effective Man Against the Wild picture. Provided that you are armed with a strong script, believable characters, and a visually-striking landscape at your disposal (especially if you have the breath-taking Adirondack Mountains readily within your reach), a successful survival movie is more than possible to accomplish. Just look past “Cold River”’s surface flaws, and you’ll experience such a survival movie.
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