Runtime: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Director: Philip Kaufman
Starring: Warren Oates,Timothy Bottoms,Louis Gossett Jr.
Genres: Drama, Adventure
MPAA rating: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
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In 1896, three whalers are stranded in the Arctic North Canada and seek refuge with an Eskimo tribe.
Terrific love story
I saw this film last year at the Chicago International Film Festivalwith Philip Kaufman and Prof. Annette Insdorf presenting and I wastotally blown away. It is both a beautiful love story between a whiteman and an Inuit woman and a big, spectacular adventure film. There aresome amazing scenes, one involving polar bear (this scene alone isamazing and worth seeing the film for) , seal hunting, walrus hunting,boating in the treacherous ice-floes, etc. The performances areexcellent from Timothy Bottoms , Warren Oates, Louis Gosset, Jr. andthe wonderful actors of the Inuit community. The film continually takesyour breath away and has some of the most beautiful love scenes I’veever seen. It’s apparently based on a true story of the first encounterof the Inuit with the Dog Children (us). The film has someheartbreaking scenes (which I won’t discuss) and the acting by theuntrained Inuit actors is truly spectacular. I can’t recommend thisfilm enough.
Fine Movie that Deservies a Wider Audience
Looking back from the 21st century, it is obvious that from the momentColumbus set foot in the new world the indigenous peoples of theAmericas were doomed. It is equally obvious to a thoughtful viewer from2005 that a movie made in 1973 about three shipwrecked whalers who arerescued by a band of Inuit and the resulting culture clash is going toend in tragedy. I knew the conclusion of "The White Dawn" as soon as Iread two sentences of it’s description on Netflix.
But we shouldn’t really hold that against it. Because "The White Dawn"is a very good movie and I am shocked that more movie aficionadoshaven’t heard of it. I never did, and I am a fan of Philip Kaufman andTimothy Bottoms and movies of the 70s, and I have an interest in thearctic. This movie seems to have been buried under a rock somewhere,despite fine performances all around, beautiful cinematography anddirection, and fascinating subject matter in the Eskimos.
Filmed on location on Baffin Island in what is now Nunavet, the Inuitterritory of Northern Canada, "The White Dawn" portrays the story ofthe three whalers – Timothy Bottoms, Louis Gossett Jr, and Warren Oatesas they live with a sympathetic and friendly Inuit band over the courseof a year, and how ultimately the interaction of the two world viewsleads to tragedy. It is based on the novel of the same name by JamesHouston, who lived with the Inuit for many years and based his novel onstories handed down through the generations of an actual event of 1897.In a fine performance, Bottoms is sensitive and open to the Eskimo wayof life, falling in love with the woman Neevee. On the other hand isarrogant and exploitive Oates, who comes to represent the worst of"civilized" man’s attitudes towards the Eskimo. He is dramaticallycounterbalanced by the equally manipulative Inuit Shaman, whopronounces that the whalers are bringing evil to the band of Eskimos.
While the ending might seem preordained, "The White Dawn" is full oftexture as it examines the meeting of cultures. And beyond the storyitself, it is full of vivid and powerful images of Eskimo life,presented with apparently absolute realism by the amateur (but verygood) Inuit cast. The joys and sorrows of the native’s communal lifeare conveyed as they travel and hunt through the seasons. Thehighlights of the movie include a seal hunt, later a more desperatewalrus hunt, and a winter dance in a large igloo, featuring the strangeand wonderful throat chanting of two Inuit girls.
A note for animal lovers – according to the commentary track, whileseals and walruses were killed in filming, they were only killed ifthey would have been killed anyway, and the slain animals werecompletely utilized for food and fur by the Inuit (who do still huntand rely on seals). The polar bear used in filming was not injured inany way.
If you are a fan of the cinema of the 70s or movies in general, and arewilling to accept the grim nature of the story, I highly recommend "TheWhite Dawn". Certainly it should gain a wider audience and not beforgotten.
One of the most amazing scenes in the history of cinematography
This movie contains what is surely one of the strangest, most unique,and most fascinating scenes in the history of cinematography.
The scene is of an Inuit (Eskimo) ritual. I believe it to be authentic.The screenwriter (who also wrote the original book) lived among andstudied the Inuit people for decades and was probably one of theworld’s foremost (non-Inuit) experts on Inuit culture. Furthermore, themovie was filmed on location and using actual Inuit people as actors.
In the ritual, two girls sit cross-legged on the floor, facing eachother. They seal their mouths together and take turns blowing airforcefully across the vocal cords of the other person. It creates oneof the eeriest sounds I’ve ever heard. It’s kind of a continuoushuffing dronal chant, reminiscent of the background drone of bagpipesbut without the shrillness. The strangest aspect of it is that there isan undertone of human voices in the sound. You get the feeling that ifyou listened hard enough, you could make out actual words. It is likeno other sound you’ve ever heard – hair-raising. Who could have everimagined that the human body could produce such a sound? Basically whatthey are doing is playing the other person’s body like a musicalinstrument.
The girls continue doing this, apparently for hours, hardly stopping totake a breath. They’ve got to be hyperventilating, or experiencing abuildup of carbon dioxide in their lungs and blood, and it isincredible that they can go on and on like this without fainting. Theymust go into some kind of dizzy trance-like state.
I have never seen or heard of this ritual/technique anywhere but inthis movie. I was in Alaska the summer of its Centennial year (1967)and was so fortunate to see a great many demonstrations of Inuitculture as part of the celebrations. But I didn’t see anything likethis, nor have I come across any description of it in my reading.
This movie would be worth seeing, preserving, and collecting on thebasis of this one scene alone! (But actually the rest of it is alsoworth seeing.)
This is a powerful movie best appreciated by those who…
have some respect for and knowledge of tribal cultures where theshamans have authority, the people are "tuned in" to the natural world,and "nature magic" is understood on a gut level by everyone fromchildhood onward. I saw this film many years ago and loved it; it’sstill excellent. If you like it, you may want to read "The Heart of theHunter" by Laurens Van Der Post, a classic about the Bushmen in SouthAfrica. This film will be of value to anyone who has someone in theirfamily who’s made a mess of his or her life because of alcohol. Grabthe drinker and make him or her watch it and that person may get asense for how destructive that behavior is. Anyone who wants to learnabout the Bear Spirit will learn something here as well.
An excellent, exciting and provocative period action/adventure winner
1896: A motley trio of whalers — gruff, hostile, alcoholic third-mateBilly (a wonderfully crotchety Warren Oates), gentle, humane cabin boyDaggett (a lovely, moving performance by Timothy Bottoms), and fidgetyharpooner Portagee (the always fine Lou Gossett) — get stranded in theArtic after their boat crashes against some ice. The threesome arerescued by and subsequently adopted into a tribe of friendly, helpful,religious Eskimos. Everything goes well for a while. However, thewhalers’ assimilation into the tribe and its customs proves to be quiterocky: they assist the Eskimos in hunting seals, sleep with numerousEskimo women, engage in wrestling matches and knife throwing contests,are marked as bearers of bad tidings by a powerful Eskimo medicine manafter a series of misfortunes befall the tribe, and make a fruitlessattempt at getting back to civilization by stealing an Eskimo boat(they also swipe some fish as well). Eventually the whalers’ opposingcultural backgrounds and differing ethical beliefs cause them to have afierce, bitter dispute with the tribe, which in turn begets violent,tragic consequences for the unsuspecting trio.
"The White Dawn" works superbly on two levels: 1) a rousing, rugged,totally plausible and absorbing braving the elements action/adventurefeature which gives the viewer a tasteful, thoughtful, utterlyfascinating look at a unique, intriguing culture that’s for the mostpart grossly ignored and under-explored in cinema and 2) a trenchant,ultimately ironic examination of the fear, ignorance and ridiculoussuperstitions which are key components of racism and, more revealingly,significant reasons for why distinct cultures can and do clash.Assuredly directed with a clear, sharp eye for minute details byPhillip Kaufman, astutely written by James Houston and Tom Rickman,gorgeously photographed in stunning panoramic scope by Michael Chapmanand scored with appropriate elegance and majestic orchestral sweep byHenry Mancini, this cracking good yarn sizes up as a colorful,enthralling and very provocative little knockout.
Interesting trip up north–WAY up north.
This little-known film of Philip Kaufman’s is a look at a culture not seenmuch in films, that of the Innuit, or Eskimo people of Arctic Canada.Threewhalers (Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms and Louis Gosset Jr.) are strandedamong them after a shipwreck. The year is 1896 but it could just as wellbe1996 or 1796 as far as we can tell in this simple world where survivalagainst nature is always the biggest concern. Surprisingly to me, theculture clash does not seem to be that great through most of the movie,andwhen it comes, it does so rather quickly. I think this makes for a lessstrong film but it’s still an interesting one that really fascinates attimes.
Cinematographer Michael Chapman (‘Raging Bull’) provides some great shotsofthe Great White North and Henry Mancini’s score is very nice also. MartinRansohoff is usually known as a producer but co-wrote the script here withThomas Rickman.
A film lost in time
The White Dawn was a film both ahead of and behind its time. In theearly 70s a film about the fatal culture clash between three strandedwhalers (Warren Oates, Lou Gosset and Timothy Bottoms) and a tribe ofInuits at the turn of the 20th Century was too early for theeco-friendly green lobby and far too late for either the hippies or theslew of early pseudo-documentary adventures like Nanook of the Northand Men of Two Worlds, although a fight with a polar bear did manage toinfuriate animal rights activists despite the animal being rathertoo-obviously unharmed. The film made barely a ripple at the box-officeor with the critics before quietly disappearing and causing Paramountto cancel Philip Kaufman’s intended follow-up for the studio, a StarTrek movie spin-off Being a Kaufman film, the emphasis is on an alien,more spiritual way of life rather than high adventure as the trio of"dog-children" bring their saviours nothing but bad luck, their notnecessarily hostile inability to understand and abide by a differentset of cultural and moral values ultimately corrupting their hosts andending in an uncharacteristic act of premeditated violence (the moralof the tale: never accept a pair of mittens from an Inuit). There IS acertain element of contrivance underpinning the story, most notablytheir conflict with a hostile travelling Shaman, but the film generallymanages to avoid National Geographic voyeurism and patronisingmelodrama, taking its pace from the seasons and the move from huntingground to hunting ground. Unlike The Savage Innocents and itsall-too-obvious studio shooting and dubbing, it also benefits immenselyfrom being shot entirely on location with non-professional actors.
Yet despite the strong visuals, in many ways the real star of the filmis Henry Mancini’s astonishingly beautiful score. A world away from theeasy listening elevator muzak he’s now associated with, the style iscloser to his lyrical score for The Molly Maguires without themelancholy, although the main theme was expanded from a piece an Inuitwoman improvised on the set. Never released on record aside from acouple of extracts on Mancini compilation albums, Kaufman reused thelyrical theme for the orbiting the Earth sequence in The Right Stuff.It’s a shame Paramount didn’t include an isolated score on their DVD,although it does at least come with a couple of interesting featurettesand a commentary by Kaufman.
It’s along way from civilisation.
It’s May 1896. Three whale hunters Billy, Daggett and Portagee crashtheir small fishing boat into an ice flow off the coast of BaffinIsland in the Arctic Circle and are the only three survivors when atribe of Eskimos come to their rescue. These Eskimos have never seencreatures like this and welcome (what they refer to as ‘dog children’)to their isolated community. They share everything important to them,but supposedly their arrival is a bad omen and western pleasures havefound their way in. Which disrupts the Eskimos’ spiritual lifestylegreatly.
What an enthralling pleasure and rather moving (and as well bleak)behavioural portrait of traditional customs and the survival of a’primitive’ race through the naive eyes of ‘civilised’ western men.Based on a true account. This Hollywood adventure exercise isbeautifully implemented from James Huston’s novel, which he also pennedthe thoughtfully sensitive screenplay. It’s not really trying to forceany sort ecological message onto the viewer, but creating a narrativethat shows sometimes people take the simple things in life for granted.Instead of accepting what they got, they disrespect a way of life thatthey’ll never understand and this will cause their own downfall. Afterobliging them, after one selfish act after another. Eventually bothsides are at bitter odds with each other towards the end and the finalstraw leaves good old reasoning between the two ethnics behind closedoors. It all comes down to survival in the end and removing the badseeds. The dog children learn it the hard way.
While the three guests (played by Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms and LouGossett Jr.) are rather simple in their backgrounds, but theiremotional bonds and interactions with each other and their surrogateguardians show just who they really are. We even get an informativelook into the Intuits’ way of life. The austerely imitating nature ofthe film is made more possible by its genuinely alienating and vastlyeerie (but pristine) locations that are spaciously shot with greatfinesse by photographer Michael Chapman. You can feel the colddiscomfort in the air. Harry Mancini’s wistful music score has such anominous howl that blends well with its gleeful side. Philip Kaufmandirection is sturdily done and totally convicted to the story he wantsto show. He demonstrates some disturbing scenes of cunningly swift, butalso brutal violence (especially towards animals with the latter). Lookout those easily offended by that. The pacing is deliberately slow toshow the simple, no fuss routine of a culture being formed and to buildup to its stirringly tragic conclusion. The performances from theIntuits are naturally quite good and they are subtitled for theoccasion. Well, its better then being dubbed… now that wouldn’t work atall. An excellent Warren Oates makes for one scuffed-up, self-seekingold sea dog, named Billy. At times his crusty performance very muchreminded of Captain Haddock. A character form Herge’s comic stories of"The Adventures of TinTin". Timothy Bottoms is outstanding in the mostspiritually aware and humane role of the three, as Daggett. Finallyrounding it off, is a sterling turn by Louis Gossett Jr. as thehappy-go-lucky, Portagee.
Simply put, this remarkably haunting and significantly logical filmstill proves a point as much now, as it did when released. Recommended.