Producers seek funds to help movie about ND aviation explorer Carl Ben Eielson take flight
Filming could start next spring with a release date later that year
FARGO — Movie producers believe a film about a famous North Dakota aviator and explorer could soar with audiences, but first they need help getting it off the ground.
The project, tentatively called “Polar Pilot,” would be a dramatized account of the life of Carl Ben Eielson. The Hatton, North Dakota, native set new standards for aviation with polar expeditions before dying in a crash as part of a 1929 rescue mission at age 32.
“A fearless young pilot and explorer clashes against savage elements in primitive aircraft to prove to the world arctic flight is possible,” the pitch reads.
“I think it’s a great project. I think it has great potential for casting for the lead role. It’s definitely a star role. If the screenplay comes out right, it’s an adventure story,” says film producer Scott Rosenfelt, whose credits include “Home Alone,” “Mystic Pizza,” “Teen Wolf” and “Smoke Signals,” among others.
Rosenfelt and his producing partners Kari Eielson Mork, Robert Seguin and Ron Thomson are trying to first raise $300,000 to develop a script and get actors and a director attached to the project. The second step would be to line up another $30 million to complete the film.
Rosenfelt says a timeline could see filming start in spring of 2024, with a release date at the end of the year or in early 2025.
“It excites me. It’s something I can sink my teeth into,” he says.
The project lands close to home for Eielson Mork, the great-niece of the late explorer. She was raised next to the Carl Ben Eielson house in Hatton, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s a North Dakota story,” she says. “He’s the most famous North Dakotan with the most places named after him.”
In addition to Eielson Street and the Hatton-Eielson Museum in his hometown, schools bear his name in Fargo, Grand Forks, the Grand Forks Air Force Base and Fairbanks, Alaska. A ship named for him was launched in World War II. An Alaskan mountain and a peninsula in Antarctica also share his name.
Fascinated with airplanes since he was a child, he learned how to fly in World War I. He returned home, bought a plane, and performed stunts for locals, earning the nickname “the Flying Professor.”
While Eielson was from Hatton and spent his formative years in North Dakota, he achieved his greatest fame in Alaska, where he moved to Fairbanks in the early 1920s to teach. In 1924, he established an air mail route from Fairbanks to McGrath in three hours, a delivery that previously took 30 days by dogsled. Shortly after, he became the first aviator to fly over the Arctic Ocean and the first to land a plane on the Arctic slope.
In 1928, he became the first pilot to fly from North America over the North Pole to Europe. The trek was considered “a flight that changed history” by a notable newscaster of the day, and he won an honor for his aviation from U.S. President Herbert Hoover.
In late 1929, Eielson was asked to help rescue 15 passengers and $1 million worth of fur from a freighter that had become icebound off Russia’s Siberian coast. His first trip was successful in picking up passengers and cargo, but the second trip was delayed by a blizzard. When he heard the storm was clearing, he set off for a second trip but had to rely on the plane’s instruments due to the snow and tragically crashed into the Siberian coast, where he and his mechanic were killed instantly.
His body was flown back to Hatton and buried in the family plot in St. John’s Cemetery.
“He was a hero,” Eielson Mork says, getting emotional. “It’s really an emotional movie. An action movie. I can see a really good-looking guy playing him. There’s a lot of actors that would do a good job playing him.”
Their wish list for a star includes Bradley Cooper, Chris Pine, Daniel Radcliffe, Cillian Murphy and Matt Bomer.
“It’s essentially a wilderness adventure film with a lead character who goes up against the elements. It’s kind of a man against nature story, in a sense,” Rosenfelt says. “A man who defies the elements to help people. He pushes himself against all odds to do something that’s never been done before.”
Those themes remind him of the Robert Redford films “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Out of Africa.”
“It’s a spectacular landscape, it’s gorgeous. It’s panoramic, all those things to me create a big screen motion picture,” he says. “You throw all of that into the mix and you have a nice stew of a big, kind of an old-fashioned commercial movie.”
If you’re interested in the “Polar Pilot” project, contact Kari Eielson Mork at firstname.lastname@example.org.