Modern dog sled racing's greatest hero and champion is George Attla, an Athabascan Indian. His story, dramatized in Ralph Liddle's affecting film ``Attla,'' offers an enticing view of an exceptional sport and shows how one native American overcame the challenge of living between two cultures. The film opens in 1946. George Attla, a teen-ager, is hospitalized in Sitka, far from his interior Alaskan village. For seven years the boy attends school in the hospital, sees movies, and plays American games. He does not hunt or fish or see his family, and when he returns home, he is both physically handicapped and estranged from his native life.
Only menial labor and loneliness await him in the big city when he goes there to find work and answers to his restlessness. Fortunately, a family friend who refuses to believe George is only a dishwasher coaxes the sad young man back to the bush. Moses Paul (played by Chief Dan George), a trapper with a wry wit and a generous heart, retrains George in the traditional ways of hunting and fishing. But it is George's father who understands the secrets of training dogs to pull sleds.
George's developing interest in dog sled racing signifies a new ability to straddle two cultures. His spirited determination proves to be the road back to his family and the means of reconciling his native culture with the education he received in the hospital. His father teaches him how to avoid despair and never to give up no matter what ``handicaps'' one might have.
Actor Pius Savage, whose own life closely paralleled Attla's, invests the role of young George with a full range of feeling, natural wit, and empathy. George Attla's realsister, Rose Attla Ambrose, radiates moral strength playing her own mother in the film. George Clutesi as George's father never seems quite at home in the role, though he projects a kindly reserve.
With the part of Moses Paul, Dan George's waggish, gentle humor has never had freer rein since ``Little Big Man.'' Pickens's characterization as the slightly dishonest trading post owner is clumsy, crude, kind, and cheering.
``Attla'' is marred by self-conscious acting in the beginning sequences, and occasionally the dialogue seems forced. But the virtues outweigh the flaws. Most impressive is its gentle reserve and understated dignity.
Enhanced by fine cinematography and a delightful score written and sung by Buffy St. Marie, ``Attla'' leaves the viewer quietly heartened.
``Attla'' has been shown widely in Alaskan villages and on Indian reservations in other states, helping to inspire dispirited Native American youth. Darwin Grebel, principal of the St. Stephens Indian School of Wyoming, credits the film for having curbed a rash of teen-age suicides. ``Its message of never giving up, despite physical handicaps and other problems, had a very positive effect on the kids. They all wrote letters to Mr. Attla.''
It may not be slick Hollywood entertainment, but its pleasant, gentle effect on the viewer and its modest, convincing affirmation of the life and culture of an Indian hero already have proven ``Attla'' to be an influence for good.