I find it difficult to resist a good story — especially stories of “against-all-odds” heroes who triumph over extremely difficult circumstances. If that could be considered a movie genre in and of itself, then I’d have to say it’s probably my favorite. I love movies that take me outside of myself, where there’s something large at stake, suspense, the possibility of peril, and some kind of inspiring payoff at the end.
Iron Will which all but defines this kind of movie, happens to be one of my favorites. All the things I love in a good story of perseverance and triumph — this movie delivers masterfully. Did I sit on the edge of my seat? Did I choke up when the hero overcame the impossible? Did I want to spring to my feet and cheer? Uh . . . yes to all of these.
When I first saw Iron Will in the theaters, one of the remarkable things was not only how much I got swept up in the movie, but how the entire theater was applauding at the end and cheering on the hero Will Stoneman (played by then-newcomer Mackenzie Astin.) It’s interesting, because after I saw Iron Will I was trying to put my finger on what, exactly, had grabbed me so powerfully. I really wanted to recommend this movie to other people, particularly other dads. And I realized it was the emotional connection with the underdog that had so powerfully engaged me. It was about impossible success when everything seemed lost. These things give us a reason to hope that we, too, can do the impossible.
Iron Will is based on a real-life dog sled competition that took place in 1917. The 500-mile race began in Winnipeg and ended in St. Paul. “Will Stoneman,” the central character in Iron Will though fictional, is based on an amalgam of a couple of real men who competed in that race.
The Will Stoneman of Iron Will is a 17-year-old boy who has just lost his father. In order to save his family’s farm from foreclosure and also pay for himself to attend college — which was his father’s dream for him — he enters the dog sled race for the $10,000 prize money. Winning is an improbable outcome, to say the least. Not only is it unlikely Stoneman would win, it’s unlikely that a 17-year-old would even live to finish such a race.
But with the help of daily publicity engendered by a (somewhat shameless) journalist (Kevin Spacey) the entire nation gets caught up in Will Stoneman’s story. And what happens as a result is that crowds show up to cheer Stoneman on at every checkpoint along the way. People rally around him, and it’s the power of their support that actually fuels him to win.
And that is the real lesson of humanity that Iron Will teaches so profoundly. It’s what chokes you up at the story’s end, and it’s what you walk away with. The power of cheering someone on, of people coming together with good intentions en masse — that force, that spirit is what can uplift, inspire, and enable us to achieve the impossible.
Dad Alert: There are some intense scenes — including the death of Will’s father — that may be unsuitable for sensitive kids.