Move over Balto, the story you think you know about the 1925 Nome Diptheria epidemic is about to get a whole new hero.
If you grew up in the 1990s, you may remember an animated movie called Balto, about a sled dog that led a team of dogs across Alaska in 1925 to save the town of Nome from a Diptheria epidemic. Unfortunately, this version of events wasn’t entirely truthful. I know, shocker. But thanks to the new movie Togo: The Untold True Story exclusively on Disney+ you can now learn the more truthful tale.
Togo: The Untold True Story | Disney+
Togo: A Heroic Tail
During the Diptheria epidemic that struck Nome, Alaska in 1925, the isolated town was in desperate need of a way to get the serum to treat the disease across the frozen landscape of the territory from the city. Due to the frigid subarctic conditions, bringing it by plane was out of the question (open-air cockpits were the norm at the time, not to mention the engine not being able to make it in the temperature). The easiest, fastest, and most efficient means of transport at the time was sled dog teams.
Sled dog teams from across Alaska were chosen to participate in a relay to bring the serum to Nome. Among them were Togo and his owner and trainer Leonhard Seppala. Seppala immediately set out in an attempt to beat a storm front that was moving in. Togo leads the team across the frozen tundra, across the Norton Sound, and up Little McKinley, and back again in below-freezing temperatures. The movie depicts their journey in detail, including the trips back and forth across the Norton Sound, which broke up as they crossed. Togo had to pull the team, the sled, and Seppala out of the Sound and to safety, saving all their lives. After completing the longest leg of the relay, Togo and the team collapsed from exhaustion before handing off the serum to the next team.
Throughout the movie, flashbacks depict Togo’s early years when he was believed not to be an appropriate sled dog due to being the runt, to Seppala discovering he was actually the fastest of the litter. There are some great scenes depicting Togo’s intelligence as he continually gets out of his pen and subverts any attempts to keep him at the homestead while his fellow dog’s train.
Fact and Fiction
The Balto movie makes it sound like there was only one team, the one lead by Balto (who was also owned and trained by Seppala). However, Balto only leads the final team into Nome. It’s Balto who the paper’s hailed as a hero, and who got a statue of himself in Central Park to commemorate what he did. Togo, as well as the other teams, were practically forgotten by the papers of the time and lost to history.
The journey was originally supposed to be a two-team trip, with Seppala covering half of the trip. However, it was eventually decided that a total of 20 teams would carry the serum to its final destination. Seppala was to be the 18th musher (sled dog handler) in the relay but was to cover the greatest and most treacherous leg of the journey with twelve-year-old Togo in the lead.
Balto, and the other teams, averaged 30 of the 674 miles, while Togo pulled his team, the serum, and Seppala over 260 miles in three days. They faced below-freezing temperatures, whiteout conditions where Seppala could not see to navigate, and nearly fell into the Norton Sound when the ice broke up beneath them as they crossed. While Togo did the majority of the work, he isn’t the one who got the credit. To this day, Balto is the one hailed as the hero. Not that Balto and all the 150 dogs over 20 teams don’t deserve to be called heroes, but the true credit of saving the town should go to Togo.
Bringing History to Life
Leonhard Seppala was a Norwegian immigrant who came to Nome during the gold rush. He is played by Willem Dafoe, who does actually kind of look like the real Seppala, at least in my opinion. His wife, Constance, was “soft-hearted” Belgian and is played by Julianne Nicholson from Law and Order: Criminal Intent. The mayor of Nome, George Maynard, is played by Norwegian actor Christopher Heyerdahl who played Todd the Wraith in Stargate: Atlantis and “The Swede” in AMC’s Hell on Wheels.
It is a shame this movie is only available on Disney+ because it is truly a great movie. The cinematography showing the mountains and terrain of the area is amazing. The acting is top-notch and from what I can tell they strove for historical accuracy.
If you like tales of unconventional heroism, dogs saving the day, or just want a great movie the whole family can watch and enjoy, I highly recommend this one.
Togo: The Untold True Story is streaming exclusively on Disney+ NOW!
The Future of the Force. The future of pop culture writing.
Melissa Villy is a regular Staff Writer for Future of the Force. She is a passionate Star Wars fan and is the custodian of the FOTF Jedi Archives. Follow her on Twitter @JediLibrarian42 where she uses the force frequently!