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Savage Innocents, The

Olive Films // Unrated // June 27, 2017
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 24, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Savage Innocents (1960), an Eskimo (Inuit) drama starring Anthony Quinn directed by Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), is fascinating, unique, and absolutely terrible all once.

As its title makes plain, Ray's screenplay and direction wants to depict Inuit like Quinn's character as both primitive savages yet also innocents uncorrupted by the encroaching white man's foibles. What could have served as the missing link between Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow (1950) and Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970) instead has all of the crudity and unsophistication of Hal Roach's caveman blood and thunder melodrama One Million B.C. (1940). Even the Rock and Shell People in that film were whole lot brighter.

But the movie is fascinating in other ways. A British-French-Italian co-production, it was photographed in Technirama, basically the ‘scope version of VistaVision, and capable of rendering startlingly sharp and vivid 70mm release prints. The Canadian Arctic location scenes alone make The Savage Innocents worth seeing, while the elaborate if obvious arctic sets built on soundstages at Pinewood Studios in England have a uniquely stylized look. The film has other problems relating to its international origins; both character actor Francis De Wolff and rising star Peter O'Toole are badly dubbed by others, for instance.

Quinn plays Inuk, Lummox of the North, crude hunter and lonely bachelor. Though his Inuit pals generously offer their wives for him to "laugh with" (i.e., have sex), Inuk wants a woman of his own. After fighting with rival hunter Kiddok (Anthony Chin) over one sister, Imina (Kaida Horiuchi), he finally settles on the other plucky Asiak (Yoko Tani, First Spaceship to Venus), though it means caring for her elderly mother as well.

After stalking a polar bear for three days the beast is abruptly killed by another Inuit's rifle, a weapon Inuk has, unbelievably, never heard of or seen before. He begins hunting fox, obsessed with trading their furs for a rifle and bullets, but when a missionary (Marco Gugliemi, dubbed by Robert Rietty) naively tries to convert Inuk and his good wife to Christianity, instead he insults their hospitality by refusing their food and declining to "laugh" with Asiak. Inuk, with Lennie-like precision, goes nuts, banging the missionary's head against the wall of their igloo. Soon, Inuk is wanted for a crime he can't begin to comprehend.

A movie like Broken Arrow may not have gotten all the details right and cast white actors in key parts, but Native Americans were presented as intelligent, clear-headed people even if their traditions were unfamiliar. The Savage Innocents probably gets a lot of Inuit particulars right but in the movie they're also clueless children at best, supremely stupid at worst. One is reminded, oddly enough, of the contrast between the characters here and those of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Stan & Ollie were appealing not because they were stupid, but rather because they're devoted to one another and have the naïveté of uncorrupted children. Inuk and his lot are merely dumb, the degree of stupidity depending upon the machinations of the script. Ray has them speaking in Pidgin English even amongst themselves; there's no distinction when, apparently, they're speaking English at the trading post. They awkwardly talk of themselves in the third person, with self-deprecating offers ("Please accept my unworthy wife's inadequate meal," etc.) in the manner of Hollywood movies about Asians. But it's also crazily inconsistent. Inuk seems utterly unaware of the concept of guns or books, yet understands the word and the meaning of "capricious" and is unfazed when a Canadian Mounties airplane flies a few feet over his head.

One sequence echoes Keisuke Kinoshita's 1958 film The Ballad of Narayama, both fact-based, about primitive societies where resources are so scarce the old and infirm willingly leave camp to die of exposure (or get eaten by animals). In Kinoshita's film this his handled with great honesty and thus has enormous emotional impact. In The Savage Innocents it's unintentionally goofy. The old lady, as if stalling for time, hastily offers Asiak a last-minute course in childbirth, but neglects to mention that newborns don't have teeth. Later, Inuk is so horrified by his new son's lack of choppers that he nearly has the baby killed.

One shouldn't expect The Savage Innocents to be as enlightened as Little Big Man or Akira Kurosawa's similarly minded Dersu Uzala (1975) and yet it's genuinely grating the way Inuk and Asiak blithely laugh like idiots all through the picture like Beavis & Butthead and fail to comprehend even simple if unfamiliar concepts mere steps outside their Inuit universe. It's one thing to point out that primitive Inuit and modern-day white man are worlds apart, but Ray seems to be suggesting any middle ground is essentially impossible. The ‘twain ain't ever gonna meet, so don't even try.

The movie's ludicrous script has the unintended consequence of accentuating the contrasts between the striking location footage (not shot by Ray, apparently) and the phony soundstage recreations, which might have been acceptable had the screenplay by wiser, so that audiences would have been more forgiving. The unnatural dubbing of many of even the native English speakers also hurts, particularly in O'Toole's case, as his scenes with Quinn Ray nearly pulls off.

Video & Audio

Olive Film's Blu-ray of The Savage Innocents generally is impressive. The image is notably sharp, though the color fluctuates and there are density issues on several reels. The 2.0 (mono) DTS-HD Master Audio is okay, though the audio is on the thin side, more a reflection of inferior Italian recording facilities than the disc. English subtitles are offered on this region "A" disc. No Extra Features.

Parting Thoughts

Certainly worth seeing but very deeply flawed, The Savage Innocents is Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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