I would start by saying that this is a weird movie for 1960, but that’d be a little disingenuous. This would be a weird movie for any year. Nicholas Ray, director of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), brings this strange arctic tale to the screen. You can chalk up Eskimo on Anthony Quinn‘s long list of nationalities he has portrayed. Where to begin?
First off: I do not know how accurate this movie is in portraying Inuit peoples, so I’m not sure if the movie is sexist or racist or sexist and racist or nothing. Not that a little culturally ill-informed bad taste has ever stopped me from enjoying a movie before (I refer you to my article on Song of the South). Whatever the case and however bizarre a product The Savage Innocents (1960) may be, I still liked it.
The story concerns Inuk (Quinn) and his search for a woman “to laugh with” (a.k.a. bang). Once he finds his woman, Asiak (played with sweetness by Yoko Tani), he seeks to become a great hunter. To become a great hunter he will trade fox pelts for a gun with the foolish white men. He accidentally murders a missionary (Marco Guglielmi) who insults his home by not eating his maggot-filled meat and refusing “to laugh with” his wife when he offers her. When his wife is ready to give birth he must leave his old mother-in-law (Marie Yang) to be eaten by polar bears. He must raise a son and hunt many wild animals. When the white authorities catch up with him he must remember his crime and try to explain before they can arrest him and then he must help his captors when they get lost on the ice.
Dogsleds, the derision of women, and the clashing of cultures is what this movie is all about. If their lives seem hard to understand and barbaric at times we must remember that theirs is a savage innocents. It may not be what the rest of the world is used to, but it is its own culture that was adapted to be as harsh as the arctic environment they reside in. It is no better or worse than the “civilized” world. It’s all about simplicity and survival.
Sometimes I’m actually uncertain if the filmmakers want to present these people as more than primitive blubber-munchers or if they want to say that they are but that’s okay because that’s just who they are. It is a puzzlement. In any event they do also condemn “civilized” man as well.
It is also just kind of neat that the movie is set in a contemporary setting. By telling the story of indigenous peoples unconcerned with the Atomic Age it bottles some genuine insulation and innocence from international troubles.
Inuits might be one of the most underrepresented groups in the media. Apart from Robert J. Flaherty’s vintage documentary Nanook of the North (1922) and Frank Zappa’s song Yellow Snow and a Bugs Bunny cartoon or two there really have not been many Northern folk in the movies. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I can respect this strange amalgam of drama and documentary (the drama is frequently punctuated by a narrator describing life in the Arctic). I confess I probably would not have even sought out this movie had it not been for the promise of seeing two of my favorite people to watch onscreen—Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata!, Zorba the Greek, The Guns of Navarone) and Anna May Wong (Piccadilly, Shanghai Express, Bombs Over Burma)—together in the same movie. Alas, I looked through this movie so hard and could not find her. Apparently someone else has the name “Anna May Wong” but it was not THE Anna May Wong. I was a little mad about that. Oh well.
Does it seem odd to cast a Chinese actress as an Inuit? Odder than casting a Mexican? Well, Quinn had played Apache, Greek, Persian, French, and the Prophet himself to name a few. Why not Inuit? And when much of the cast is apparently Japanese maybe you won’t mind. Just remember that this was a different time and this is how movies were made and we have come so far since then and pay no attention to Johnny Depp playing Tonto in the new Lone Ranger (2013) movie.
It’s a strange movie to be sure. It’s rather episodic and uneven. Some of the scenery is impressive but sometimes it’s too apparent when they’re on a stage. There are a sloppy few animal sequences that mostly end in death of some kind (the walrus hunt is pretty good though). The trouble with an environment that is day half the year and night the other half is that it becomes impossible to distinguish the passage of time (Pacino! Insomnia!). Some of the dialogue feels stilted and possibly caricature. Peter O’Toole (pre-nose job!) is in it but his voice is dubbed by some American guy so it’s weird (Harvey Keitel in Saturn 3, anyone?). The narration feels out of place most of the time, like an old Disney nature documentary or Mondo Cane. Much of the film feels quite uncinematic actually. Some sequences make me feel uncomfortable because I’m not sure how uninformed and insulting the movie really is in regards to actual Inuit culture. Nanook of the North was definitely the better Inuit movie. Ultimately most the themes in The Savage Innocents were handled far better in Akira Kurosawa‘s grand Russian epic Dersu Uzala (1975).
There are also a lot of shirts off for such a cold climate.
All these grievances add up to a truly weird movie experience. I did like it, however. It does have some pretty good sequences: the kayak and dogsled footage; the walruses tumbling off their rock island; Asiak winning over Inuk; the missionary murder; Asiak’s attitude towards the whites and “civilized” Inuits at the trading post; the chilling advice regarding childbirth from a dying old woman; the mission to arrest Inuk in the storm. It doesn’t all add up to a great movie, but it is pretty unforgettable. The main theme isn’t bad either (a sort of mix between Giacomo Puccini’s Humming Chorus from the opera Madame Butterfly and the theme from Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust). Anthony Quinn is not doing his best work, but he’s still good and Yoko Tani does a fine job as his submissive but willful wife (her character is far more interesting). The Savage Innocents also create an atmosphere unlike any other. You feel secluded and desperate but cozy while watching it. Watching this movie you will feel like you have lived in this bleak, frozen world your whole life. You really do end up relating to these characters. You hate the traders and the missionary and the troopers despite their best intentions. They are the aliens in this world. Inuk and his family are the only guides you’d follow through this impossible tundra.
It’s a fairly immersive experience, which is sort of what a good movie is supposed to be. I had dreams all night about living on the ice after watching The Savage Innocents. Whether it be hackneyed pseudo-documentary or insensitive cultural sleight, I may not know, but I definitely enjoyed it for whatever it was. It’s weird, possibly racist, and terrifically uneven but I kind of like it’s kooky imperfection.
What are you waiting for? Go give it a whirl.