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The White Dawn

The White Dawn
Paramount Home Video
1974 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 110 min. / Street Date August 31, 2004 / 14.99
Starring Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, Louis Gossett Jr., Joanasie Salamonie, Simonie Kopapik, Pilitak, Sagiaktok
Cinematography Michael Chapman
Film Editor Douglas Stewart
Original Music Henry Mancini
Written byMartin Ransohoff, Thomas Rickman, James Houston from his novel
Produced by Martin Ransohoff
Directed by Philip Kaufman

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 arctic winter. 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. Philip Kaufman 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 false note 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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