Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1974 nobody had made a really satisfactory arctic movie since Flaherty's Nanook of the North, and
even that was a carefully staged show designed to look like a documentary. The biggest effort had
been Nicholas Ray's 1961 The Savage Innocents with Anthony Quinn and a dubbed Peter O'Toole.
It suffered from spotty special effects and some bad dubbing. Philip Kaufman's The White Dawn
is remarkable in that a tiny crew filmed the whole thing right up in the middle of an authentic
As the fascinating docu that comes with the DVD explains, everybody involved had to be a real
adventurer. Before Martin Ransohoff found Kaufman, another director turned him down with a simple
telegram: "My employment temperature range is between 45 and 85 degrees."
With nary a concession to action-movie clichés or feel-good ecological message-making,
Kaufman's film is a wonderful adventure in an exotic world.
Billy, Daggett and Portagee (Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Louis Gossett) are
marooned with an Inuit tribe on Baffin Bay way up within the arctic circle. They adapt well and
are accepted by the tribe as 'dog men.' The communal lifestyle is difficult but fair and
humanitarian, even to the point of welcoming the outsiders into their beds. But bad luck and Billy's
'civilized' habits bring the trio to a sorry end.
Producer Ransohoff was attracted to the simplicity of the original Houston book - based on the true story
of three whalers' fatal experience with the Inuits (as they prefer to be called) in 1896. It's a great
adventure tale. Rescued from certain death, the three men are nursed and aided by hardy tribesmen
who follow alien philosophies, superstitions and ways of dealing with the world. The sailors are
delighted by the warmth and generosity of their saviors. Daggett finds a home with one of the hunters
and forms an emotional bond with an affectionate wife of one of the elders. The Inuits do not have
the sense of property that infects the Americans - in one of the film's nicest speeches, we
hear how the Inuits don't believe in men owning women or the tribe owning the land they hunt on. It's
all borrowed from earth spirits. There's a nice moment where a hunter dribbles water into the mouth
of a dead seal, in a ritual that allows the seal to 'give himself' to be eaten.
This harmony is spoiled by the troublemaking Billy, the ranking officer on the
whaling craft whose lousy judgment got them stranded in the first place. Warren Oates is appropriately
crass in the role, cheating a tribesman out of his daughters in a cheap game of knife throwing. But
as it turns out, he isn't the core cause of their demise, after a year of peaceful coexistence. All
three of the castaways steal a boat in a flubbed attempt to break out to the bay where they might
be picked up by another whaling vessel. The Inuits never call them to account for the theft, or seem
to hold it against them at all. But all three of them ferment some liquor that causes the final straw
to break. An Inuit girl passes out from the drink and freezes to death, giving an ornery tribal shaman
(Sagiaktok) the leverage he needs to inspire a miniature 'ethnic cleansing.' Although Daggett has
an emotional supporter among the tribesmen, the Inuits doesn't have room for fine points of law or
fairness. The final portrait of the arctic culture is a harsh one.
The production is a wonder, with cameraman Michael Chapman taking on full responsibility for the look
of what must have been a really impossible shoot. With no two days looking the same, we're told
that most scenes had to be filmed all in one go. Yet the show never seems hindered by the cold, nor are
scenes reduced to one-shot masters. The vast expanse of ice and water is intimidating; we're struck by
the bleakness of it all, especially when Timothy Bottoms shows his new friends a sketchbook with
pictures of inconceivable things like trains and even trees.
Timothy Bottoms and Louis Gossett are gentle and pleasing in their roles. Since working in the harsh
filming conditions would be intolerable for most Hollywood types, we believe these men are as congenial
as their characters. Warren Oates is also good as the selfish and stubborn Billy - he was a dear,
personable man as well. The script doesn't delve deeply into the sailors' characters; we like them
based on what we learn about them as they interact with the tribe.
The film is pretty daring for its PG rating, with all the carefree wife-swapping and other "hospitable"
moments, such as when two young girls tuck the whalers' cold feet to their breasts to keep them warm.
1974 wasn't that liberated of a time; Savant's conclusion is that the essentially racist MPAA
deemed naked Eskimoes as non-white and therefore inoffensive.
Paramount's Widescreen Collection DVD of The White Dawn is a fine DVD. The enhanced image looks
great even though the source material isn't perfect: there's occasional dirt to mar the often
all-white images. Considering the nature of the subject, it looks fantastic.
The comes with some very nice extras, proving that someone at Paramount really believed in the title.
provides an unnecessary introduction but a fine commentary that will entertain anyone
wondering how a Hollywood film could be made under such conditions. Welcoming the Dawn is a
solid docu (edited by a talented pal, Les Kaye) that relies on more Kaufman interviews. The only
is the testimony from a college professor who tends to gush a bit too much over the film and
its significance, but it's not enough to disrupt the show. Animal activists will be happy to be told
that the gory killing of a polar bear was faked. The animal was shipped north from a Vancouver zoo
and had never been in deep snow before. The shot of it collapsing dead was actually a bit of film
from its first few moments out of its cage, happily bellyflopping into a snowdrift.
There's also a separate educational docu about the Inuits themselves. This fine special edition is one
of the few "non-classic" library titles I've seen receive a fair shake from Paramount. They need
to be encouraged to do more.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The White Dawn rates:
Supplements: Intro and commentary by director Kaufman, Welcoming the Dawn featurette docu,
A Way of Life - The World of the Inuit docu.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 28, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson