Iron Will is a 1994 movie from Disney following the story of Will and a real-life 1917 dogsled race from Winnipeg to Saint Paul (although most of the rest of the details of the story are fictional). It featured a pretty stellar cast, including Kevin Spacey, David Ogden Stiers, and August Schellenberg, who was pretty popular at the time. It, like many Disney movies, featured a pretty heavy message but a good one. One about determination and heart.
The movie follows Will, and we first learn that he has been accepted into college. He is not happy about it, and his parents seem to believe he is lowering his expectations of what he can do with life because of their circumstances…. However, it doesn’t entirely seem like that is the case for Will. One day his father finds a flyer for a dogsled race and thinks about joining to help pay for Will’s school. However, tragedy strikes, and Will’s father drowns trying to save his dogsled team. Will is torn up and blames the dogs at first but eventually becomes inspired again by the same dogsled race. His mother and their farmhand, Ned, resist the idea of Will joining, but his determination eventually wins them over.
After some training, Will shows up to join and is told by the main sponsor that he cannot because he is late with his fee. Reporter Harry Kingsley agreed to pay for the boy’s fee, believing that writing about Will, will be good for his reporting. Harper, the sponsor, still plans to reject the boy being allowed to enter, but when Kingsley gives an impassioned speech about these rich men turning up their nose at a young, struggling boy, he realizes he has to let Will race. All the sponsors and racers expect he will be out even before the first day is over, despite other people celebrating Will.
From there, the movie plays out with Will pushing through and actually making pretty incredible strides in the race. Ned had told him he would be weaker and so gave him advice on how to pull ahead and not let his weakness overtake him. Will eats less to keep his weight down and sleeps less to be on the race trail longer.
The movie is not without difficulties for Will. He is shown avoiding paths that will take him by water, even as it slows him down. One of the other competitors, Borg, is a cruel and hateful man that not only gets in Will’s way but other racers as well. Borg’s sponsor is also behind much of Borg’s focus on Will. Beyond that, the pace that Will pushes himself does start to come back at him. Yet Will remains persistent, and even as people tell him he’s already proven enough and can drop out, he insists he will not only finish but win. Not only that, but Kingsley’s writing about him has truly inspired people, and he has many fans, something Will at first appreciates but then realizes that Kingsley is just using him.
As Will’s determination carries him further, and his kindhearted nature shines through – he slows himself down to rescue a competitor at one point, for instance – opinions begin to shift. Most still don’t believe that he can win, but they start to regret rooting against the boy and even find themselves inspired by him. J.W. Harper, who tried to keep him out of the race, even bets that the boy will actually finish and finish stronger than anyone expected. Harper had once struggled and was told he would not make it, and he can’t help but be inspired by the boy he tried to stop. Kingsley himself even begins to turn around and actually wants to help Will because he truly does and not because he thinks he can get something out of it.
It really is one of those feel-good stories where a good person, strong heart, and iron will (cough) win out. The end has a pretty “Disney movie moment” when we think that Will won’t make it, but it is rather lovely, as cheesy as it is. Will barely manages to cross the line, but the important part is that he changes the minds of a lot of people in the process. A few managers that were against him, the reporter that was taking advantage of him, and several others are among those that help inspire a falling Will to cross the finish line (win or lose) when he is about to give up. Not only that, but immediately after he crosses, the competitors swarm him to make sure he is helped into the arms of his mother. It is touching and cheesy but damn beautiful.
Bottom line. I actually really enjoy movies like this. There is enough adventure and drama that it is not simply a feel-good movie but one with a lot of highs and lows. It is incredibly well acted and has more than a few heart-clenching moments and moments when you really do doubt that Will will make it. It is a good movie and one that has aged well. The message is pretty strong and timeless, and Will is a good hero to root for. It is well-acted and a great adventure. If you haven’t seen it or it has been a while, I highly recommend giving it a watch.