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The Ongoing Struggle With Society in 'The Savage Innocents'


Nicholas Ray's personal frustrations inform his fable of the far north, now on Blu-ray by Olive Films.

The Savage Innocents

Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Anthony Quinn, Yoko Tani
Distributor: Olive Films
Year: 1960
USDVD release date: 2017-06-27

At last available on home video is Nicholas Ray's elusive widescreen epic The Savage Innocents 1960). So far, the film's chief claim to fame is the possibly apocryphal if plausible story of inspiring Bob Dylan's song "Quinn the Eskimo", since Anthony Quinn does indeed play an Eskimo (Inuit, in modern parlance).

In his life and his films, Ray presents the individual struggling with a stifling, strangling society hostile to outsiders or wayward insiders. In his life, this struggle was visible through his struggles with alcoholism, sex, marriage and problems maintaining his Hollywood career. In his films, the struggle led to projects not only about beleaguered individuals but about threatened subcultures such as hassled Gypsies (Hot Blood,1956), Florida "swamp rats" (Wind Across the Everglades,1958) and the primitive tribe known as "teenagers" (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955).

The Savage Innocents opens with majestic Technirama vistas of icy landscapes dwarfing tiny figures on a dogsled as a narrator's voice of authority informs us: "On top of the world, nearer to the North Pole than to any civilized area, there live members of a singular race of nomads. They're so proud that they call themselves simply The Men. We in turn call these people Eskimos, meaning eaters of raw flesh, and in the age of the atom bomb they still hunt with bow and arrow. They share whatever they own, and they are so crude, they don't know how to lie."

Once you thresh out the chaff of modern perceptions of politicial correctness from such narration, you can perceive the intended ironies about atom boms and falsehoods that imply the film's celebration of "noble savages" as strong people whose stated simplicities and crudeness, so far from the "civilized" (also used ironically), are supposedly admirable and pure.

Thus the film advances a dramatic claim staked out in Robert Flaherty's influential silent classic Nanook of the North (1922), one of the most popular films of its time, in which the filmmaker encouraged local Inuits to enact a docu-fiction of their vanishing lifestyles. A similar docudrama was W.S. Van Dyke's Eskimo (1933), the first film shot in Alaska and the first in a Native American language, and some sources state that this film inspired Hans Ruesch's 1950 novel Top of the World, the basis for Ray's screenplay on The Savage Innocents.

This story crosses Nanook-esque ethnographics with the conflict of confrontation with White Man's Civilization, a popular metaphorical snake introduced into Edenic gardens of escapist celebrations of the "exotic" and "primitive", such as the wonderful silent film White Shadows in the South Seas (1928), yet another Van Dyke classic.

A persistent irony of such stories is that "the snake" is the concept of Sin itself, the knowledge of judging certain behaviors as wrong, and that this snake is introduced via the very people who fret about such things: missionaries, who become conflated with the devil, whether harsh and thunderous or sly and insinuating. This lack of knowledge of sin, and therefore the lack of actual sin deserving punishment, is the "innocence" of the title. The "savage" isn't so much a pejorative connotation--although animal lovers (of which Ruesch was a pioneering figure) may wish to avoid this film's hunting scenes of bears and seals--as the bucolic sense of "wild" and "natural", in tune with nature.

The missionary who sets the final part of the plot in motion in The Savage Innocents has visited to tell Inuk and his wife Asiak (Yoko Tani) about this unknown concept of Sin, but the man's head proves too soft for the beating against the walls he receives when he rudely rejects Inuk's offer to "laugh" with Asiak.

For Ray, the "free love" transgressions of wife-sharing are crucial to the whole project and may explain why this bisexual "outlaw" was attracted to it. It's a stick in the eye of conventional marriage, with its concomitant concepts as faithfulness, jealousy and possessiveness. Even though wives are superficially presented as possessions to be traded for other goods, they're also shown to have proud and combative spirits if slighted and to fully participate in the notion that sex with visitors is a personal pleasure. "If you love your wife," declares Inuk, "no matter how often you lend her, she always comes back like new." There's a formula for renewing your marriage that some really believe.

"No one may force a woman" is a natural law uttered at one crucial point, for ultimately the women exercise choice about whether to be accepted by one man or another. When Asiak punishes Inuk by telling him "A woman is not so easy to put down as a bear," her wise and stoic mother (Anna May Wong) smiles and nods approvingly.

The presence of the once-glamorous Wong, a frustratingly underused star of silents and talkies, is among the movie's pleasures, and gets a quietly moving sequence when the aging mother insists on being left out on the ice as food for bears who will one day be hunted by Inuk. It's circle-of-life time, and this is the movie's most upfront brush with the mystical. This seemingly harsh element links this film with Japan's often-filmed "Ballad of Narayama", about similar folkways.

A curious point about pride is contained in the manner of dialogue. The narrator has told us that this proud people call themselves The Men, yet the dialogue adopts a convention of humility whereby nobody uses the first person. People refer to themselves indirectly as "someone", as in "Someone wants a woman" or "Someone is a poor hunter". Self-abasement is also cemented into the language, so that people begin sentences with stock phrases like "this useless hunter" and "this meat is not very good" and "women are stupid, but", etc.

One crucial speech by Asiak sums up the film and Ray's attitude: "Excuse a silly woman for talking before so many wonderful men, but she thinks that the White Man is stupid or crazy, and if he's crazy we should go away from here as fast as possible because the crazyness is catching. It seems advisable to leave this place and never come back." She makes this announcement at the trading post, a new and hostile world dedicated to fleecing the Eskimos by giving them rifles (short of bullets) for a hundred fox furs, and where they discover such new-fangled items as jukeboxes and whisky.

But we get ahead of ourselves. In the story's initial conflict, the narrator tells us Inuk "does not have a woman of his own. For a long time he has known the importance of having a wife to give orders to, one who would sew his garments, make his mittens, mend his boots and 'laugh' with him, which means the same as making love, an important factor when a third of the year is night."

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The first part of the film concerns this quest for a wife and the bargaining it involves, and much of the narrative illustrates various cultural beliefs and behaviors before we ever get to the subtly advancing news of the White Man, first merely a rumor in Inuk's consciousness and a potential source of gain that he doesn't understand will undermine him.

The last third of the film introduces an ambiguous figure of law-enforcing civilization in the form of no less than Peter O'Toole, blue transparent eyes blazing in anguished closeup, as he vows to get his man almost literally to the ends of the Earth. Viewers may be shocked to recognize him since he's not listed in the opening credits, nor will they recognize his dubbed voice. This was his debut, and sources state that he removed his name because of the dubbing, although the closing credits do in fact list him.

It's probably significant that none of the several white characters have names, whereas every Eskimo is carefully named. It's to O'Toole's unnamed white trooper, who tries to explain why civilization won't leave them alone, that Asiak delivers the verdict, "When you come to a strange land, you should bring your wives and not your laws." Snap!

Angelo Francesco's Lavagnino's lush score is another of the film's pleasures, especially as it sweeps across seascapes with picturesque icebergs in the widescreen photography of Peter Hennessy, whose documentary work includes Seven Years in Tibet (1956), and the great Aldo Tonti, who won an Italian prize for this film.

As with Wind Across the Everglades, the editing shows clues of tampering that leaves odd gaps in the narrative, such as an unresolved scene where Inuk and Asiak think their toothless newborn baby must be left on the ice. One edit later and the kid is older and happy. This film was produced by noted Italian producer Maleno Malenotti, whose credits include Gillo Pontecorvo's The Wide Blue Road (1957), and we can't help wondering if the Italian cut of this film has any notable differences.

With the film's sources so far removed from direct experience of Inuit cultures, how accurate or fair is the picture presented here must be up for grabs. What matters isn't the tourism but the auteurism. Ray uses these ideas as a mirror for critiquing his own society, so that the whole Eskimo thing becomes more like a metaphorical fairy tale than a serious attempt at anthropology.

The results are often impressive and always engaging, even though the aesthetic style of this French-Italian-British co-production is inevitably a mishmash of second-unit location footage of Canada and Greenland, studio sets for the scenes with actors, and process shots combining both elements. The obviousness of the latter are only emphasized in the high definition of the Blu-ray mastering, and there are slight signs that the film could use a full-scale restoration, which probably isn't arriving soon.

Despite these and other potentially problematic elements for the modern viewer, such as ethnic cross-casting (the Mexican-Irish Quinn played virtually every ethnicity in his amazing career), we cannot refrain from speaking for all fans of Ray's oddly thwarted and constricted widescreen parables still trawling for Blu-rays. Quinn's Eskimo, at least, has finally gotten here.


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