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How did the NFB snag a young Russell Crowe?

How did the NFB snag a young Russell Crowe?

How did the NFB snag a young Russell Crowe?

If you listen carefully to the Robert Service poems in the narration of Rita Roy’s 1993 documentary The Spell of the Yukon, you might begin to feel like the voice is familiar. Iconic, even. Then again, could you guess with your eyes closed who it is?
In 1993, New Zealand-born Hollywood actor Russell Crowe, then 29 years old, starred in an NFB-John Aaron co-production called For the Moment. (Unfortunately, we don’t have the rights to be able to stream this film on While shooting the film in Manitoba, Crowe became acquainted with NFB producer/director Rita Roy. As Roy remembers it, she and Crowe bonded over a mutual appreciation for Robert Service’s poetry. In fact, Roy was, at the time, focused on making a biopic about the great Scottish-Canadian poet. “I think he [Crowe] would have been the perfect subject for a re-enactment!” says Roy.


For the Moment (1993)
That project never came to be, but instead, Roy set out to make The Spell of the Yukon (titled after one of Service’s best-known poems). In this short 43-minute documentary, Roy sets out to follow in the footsteps of the daring gold-seekers who crossed the Yukon’s treacherous geography in search of untold wealth. It was a famously deadly endeavour, and Roy’s own ancestors set out to conquer the hostile landscape generations ago. Roy wanted to pepper the film with Service’s poetry, and immediately thought of her old pal Russell Crowe.


The Spell of the Yukon
“He had the perfect voice!” exclaims Roy, describing Crowe’s deep, methodical tone as “incredibly rich.” She asked Crowe if he would agree to record the poems, and he said yes. “What kind of accent do you want?”, she remembers him asking. To give life to Service’s poems, Crowe hid his New Zealand accent in favour of a Scottish one, and the effect is mesmerizing. Skip to the 0:51 mark to take a listen:

The Spell of the Yukon, Rita Roy, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

At the time, Crowe was certainly not a household name like he is today, but he was actively working in relatively high-profile projects like L.A. Confidential, slowly making a name for himself as a critically-admired performer. Roy sent Crowe the poems to be recorded, and had to send the script to him in three different locations (Los Angeles, New York, and finally Sydney, Australia) to eventually nail down the recording. Busy guy!
Before Crowe was cast as narrator/Service, the film’s script called for a particularly powerful voice to read the narration. The script begins: “Opening shot: stunning wide-angle view of the blue-purple mountains of the Yukon… very slow pan across… the music lowering a touch, we hear a golden voice over this magnificent scenery.”
This golden voice was set to read aloud such harmonious and hypnotic phrases from Service’s poetry as: “It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder / It’s the forests where silence has lease / It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder / It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”
What do you think? Do Mr. Crowe’s unique vocal talents adequately represent Mr. Service’s iconic Canadian poetry? Only one way to find out: watch the film!

The Spell of the Yukon, Rita Roy, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

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  1. Amazing film – more like this please – Canadian history at its best and yes Russell Crowe was so well suited. Thank you

    — Jackie Hall,
  2. Service comes alive, indeed! I grew up in southern California where a high school English teacher got me hooked on Service. We read him around campfires. This film is a wonderfully complete and rich visual/sound/literary/historical experience, for which I’m very grateful. And Mr. Crowe has never sounded better!!

    — Ralph Moore,
  3. It’s a shame we Canada Lovers in England
    can’t see “The Spell of the Yukon” on our computers
    Why is that?
    I just saw “City of Gold” – also a NFB production
    with woderful tales of the Gold Rush and Dawxon City
    Please free up “The spell of the Yukon” so the NFB can
    go on showing the world the best of Canada.
    Jed Falby

    — Jed Falby,
    1. Hi Jed, thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, we do not always have all the rights to various global territories for our films, and this can be complex to negotiate. I will, however, notify you here as soon as this film becomes available in England. We hope you will enjoy the rest of our films available on!

      — Jovana Jankovic,
    1. Thanks for chatting with us, Rita!

      — Jovana Jankovic,
  4. I think Mr Crowe is the greatest actor of my time and he is on my bucket list to see him in the flesh before I die.

  5. Well done. Robert Service read by Russell Crowe brought the Peace of the Yukon to mind like nothing else. The silence and the openness were beautifully portrayed.

    The history lesson was excellent. I want to go back,now.

    — David Hubbard,
  6. A fascinating glimpse into the history of the Gold Rush. A new appreciation for Robert Service’s poems heard here in context. I love the sound of Rita Roy’s voice. So soft spoken and precise, but with a hint of French Canadian in her accent. I have lived in Canada for over thrity years and am still learning new things about this huge country. The film captures the beauty of the landscape in the Yukon and its relative emptiness.

    — Rosemarie Kelland,
  7. Thanks for casting Russell, Rita, wherever you are today, whatever you’re doing. Loved his rendition of the poems as well as the narration. I’ve worked in mud and water and the North Country not long but long enough to feel an ache in joints and soul as your film rolls by.

    — Gordon Campbell,
  8. This was lovely. I enjoyed it very much.

    — Naureen Brodie,

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