When I was young, growing up in Rochester, New York in the
late 60's/early 70's, my mother would bundle me up so I could play in
with layers of sweaters and socks, a coat, a hat and mittens an then
out and have fun Nanook." I never
thought much about it. I just assumed
that it was one of those phrases that people used even though no one
it meant (like "hoist by your own petard").
That's a testament to the effect Robert Flaherty's 1924 film, Nanook of the North had on the
country. Even 50 years later, though it
was rarely (if ever) shown on TV or in wide release theatrically, it
part of the lexicon, in at least a limited sense. Now
Flicker Alley has released this
influential and far-reaching film, a move that's widely recognized as
documentary, on a magnificent looking Blu-ray disc chocked full of
even a second feature film, The Wedding
of Palo. It's great
set that's a must-buy for fans of early
Nanook of the North:
In the early 1910's Robert Flaherty was hired to travel to
the Hudson Bay area and look for
areas to put in a railroad. While he was
there he came to know the Inuit people and was amazed that anyone could
in such a harsh environment, especially without the benefit of modern
advancements. During the years he spent
in the area, he noticed that the traditional ways were being lost. The harpoons that had been used for
generations to hunt with were being replaced with rifles.
Flaherty decided that a film of the Inuits
had a lot of commercial potential and so he set his sights on making a
The first film that he made did well at test screenings, but
when the negative was destroyed in a fire he decided to return to the Arctic and remake the movie from scratch. This time however, he would focus the film on
a single family, rather than just string together a series of scenes
Inuit life like he did for the first film.
It was this key difference that made the resulting film, Nanook
North, the classic that it has become as set it apart from the
were popular at the time.
The movie shows an Inuit Chief, Nanoon, his two wives and
their children as they work and play.
They hunt seals and walrus with harpoons, take pelts to the
outpost where the proprietor shows them the latest gadget from down
phonograph (and Nanook is so amazed and perplexed that he bites the
they build an igloo, and Nanook teaches one of his young sons how to
use a bow and
arrow. It's a look at how one family
survives in a very hostile environment.
Often cited as the first documentary, the film is
justifiable famous, except that it isn't really a documentary by
definition of the term. That's because
most of the movie was staged. One of the
most memorable scenes, as well as the funniest, is when Nanook tries to
a speared seal out of a hole in the ice.
Every time Nanook pulls the rope attached to the harpoon the
it back. It's an epic tug-of-war between
man and beast... except that he wasn't pulling against a seal. It was really a couple of friends who were
pulling the rope from off camera.
Flaherty also gathered together a group to hunt a walrus, but he
them from employing rifles, which they always used, and made them use
harpoons. The record-biting scene was
also staged, the tribe knew about records by that time, and even the
a fiction: Flaherty put it together
using the most photogenic tribe members he could find.
Despite all of this, it's still an important
documentary. The film does document how
wildlife was hunted at one time, by people who remembered using
tools. It illustrates how they still
dressed the animals they killed, and how they would eat them. If Flaherty didn't insist on the participants
using the old ways, there would be no photographic record of how it was
On top of that, it's an entertaining film. The
children are too cute for words,
especially in the sequence where a toddler is playing with a fox cub. The way that they make an igloo is
impressive, and just seeing the condition that they have to live and
difficult it is to travel even a few miles makes this an engaging
The Wedding of Palo:
This film about the lives of the natives of Greenland
is an obvious successor to Nanook.
While Flaherty tried
to give the feeling that everything on screen was authentic and
this film by Danish polar explorer Dr. Knud Rasmussen goes in the other
direction. He uses a script to tell the
story of a love triangle while exploring how the natives survive their
While the title is pretty poor, it gives away the ending
(!), the film is actually quite interesting.
It tells the story of Navarana, an attractive woman who has two
best friends Palo and Samo. Both give
her presents and she's flattered by the attention, but the two men
resent each other and their competition for Navarana's hand nearly
violent. Instead of fighting though, the
village elders insist that they pair face off in a unique contest: a drum duel.
The entire village gathers and the two 'combatants' sing
dissing their opponent. The one who
makes the crowd laugh the most wins and in this case will be allowed to
As the contest starts, Navarana's brothers realize that no
matter who wins, they will lose.
Navarana is their only sister and does all of the domestic work
she marries she'll leave them. Instead
of waiting for the result, they leave (taking Navarana with them) and
to their winter quarters.
Meanwhile in the battle, Palo has the upper hand and is
winning handily... that is until Samo plays his trump card:
pulling out a knife and stabbing his
opponent. Instead of yelling "foul"
everyone runs and Samo seems to suffer no consequences for his deed. He goes off to hunt a polar bear so he can
give the pelt to Navarana, while Palo, near death, is treated by a
This was a very interesting film that I hadn't seen before
screening this set. Like Nanook, it
presents a look at a culture that no longer exists.
The way that disputes were settled is both
brilliant and seemingly ineffective. The
idea of using humor to resolve differences is inspired, what better way
defuse a situation than be making everyone laugh. On
the other hand, one has to wonder if
making your opponent the butt of a series of jokes really solves the
just exacerbates it and makes it worse.
The polar bear hunting scene is also a great document on how
such a feat was accomplished. Polar
bears are tough, the first time Samo hits a bear with a harpoon it just
off his hide doing no damage at all, and you'd think it would be a
fight, especially if the bear was riled and decided to attack rather
from ice flow to ice flow the way this one did.
While some of the plot did leave me scratching my head (why
did no one seem to worry that Samo had murderous tendencies?) this film
wonderful look at a vanished way of life and fun to watch as well.
These features arrive on two Blu-ray disc housed in a
This Flicker Alley set look great. I have
the Criterion DVD of the main feature
and this new Blu-ray is superior to the older release (which is very
begin with). For both features and the
shorts the 1080p picture is clean and clear, and there's a more detail
contrast than in the Criterion (for Nanook
that is... I don't believe the other content has appeared on home video
previously). The contrast is excellent
and while there is some print damage, this 90 year old film hasn't
great in decades. It's an excellent
The movies come with nice sounding DD 2.0 audio. Nanook
of the North is accompanied by an orchestral score that was
conducted by Timothy Brock and sounds fine.
It's the same score that's on the Criterion version and the
the film very well. The sound films are
limited to the recording technology of the times, naturally, but the
sound nice to the ear given the age of the movies.
Wedding of Palo was dubbed in post production and they didn't do a
job of matching the mouth movements but that's an error inherent with
(and not of huge concern in any case.)
Wow! That was my
first thought when I started to dive into the extras.
Flicker Alley didn't just include a couple of
minor items so they could list something on the back of the cover; they
all-out of make an impressive and comprehensive package.
First up is Nanook
Revisited, a French documentary from 1988.
In this hour-long made-for-TV film director Claude Massot
to the locations that Robert Flaherty filmed in 1924 and examines how
have changed. He is able to track down a
couple of descendents of people tangentially associated with the film,
of friend of Nanook who relates stories his father told him about the
and the offspring of one of Flaherty's sons (and apparently the son was
abandoned by the filmmaker when he finished making his movie). I was disappointed that they didn't dig a
little deeper (I've always wondered if Nanook really did die a year or
the movie was completed or if that was just another of Flaherty's
get some publicity for the film. As far
as I can tell, we only have his word for it.) The
second half of the documentary, where the
impact of the film on today's (well, 1988's) Inuits is examined, is
interesting. They visit a school where
the children as shown how to skin a seal, and then raw seal meat is
eaten by all of the children. It's a
nice look at how things have changed while trying to keep their
There are also five shorts on Arctic life that were made
from 1913-1959. Houses of the Arctic (1928) is the
igloo-building sequence of Nanook that
has been re-edited and was released as an educational film. That is followed by Arctic Hunt
(1913) and extended excerpts from Primitive Love
(1927), two movies created by Arctic explorer Frank
E. Kleinschmidt about life in the far north.
It's interesting to compare these films, which don't work as
well, with Nanook. The
side-by-side comparison shows just how
much Flaherty got right.
Eskimo Hunters of Northwest Alaska
(1949) takes a look at what it's like to live in the arctic 25+ years
after Nanook was made. Now
manufactured goods, especially rifles,
are an important part of the Eskimo's life.
Finally, Face of the High Arctic
(1959) is a film made by the National Film Board of Canada about the
the Queen Elizabeth Islands.
In addition to the on-disc bonuses there's a wonderful 32-page
booklet that contains an excerpt from Robert Flaherty's book, My Eskimo Friends, that deals with his
time spent making Nanook as well as
an interesting essay on The Wedding of Palo by Lawrence Millman. There are also notes on the other films
included in the collection.
This is an amazing set.
Just presenting the two features in lovely prints would make
the price, but adding an impressive five (!) shorts and an additional
documentary the runs over an hour makes this a must-buy collection. It comes very Highly Recommended.
Note: The images do not come from the Blu-ray disc.