Not many filmmakers set the perennial “collision of cultures” in the frozen spaces of the Arctic, often for no other reason than the production difficulties of shooting on location. The Baffin Island-Frobisher Bay area of Canada, lying some 1600 miles North of Montreal, is one of the least populated, most physically demanding spaces on the Earth. Temperatures customarily reach more than 50 degrees below zero. Foreign objects bond to the skin and about the solvent that will remove them is urine.
Prior to 1974, only two filmmakers had braved the hazards of the environment. Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) produced the groundbreaking documentary Nanook of the North in 1922 and laid the groundwork not only for the depiction of “non-civilized” communities on film but also inaugurated the non-fiction film genre in general. In 1933, W.S. Van Dyke (1889-1943), the director of the 1932 version of that most potent collision story, Tarzan of the Apes, concocted another fiction, Eskimo, that featured native participants.
The White Dawn was the first subsequent Hollywood film to tackle this region. It is based on a true story of three sailors lost at sea and then taken in by the Inuit people from 1896-97. James Houston, who heard the tale from some of the original participants while employed by the Canadian government in the region, published an account in the 1971 novel, White Dawn: An Eskimo Sage: An Eskimo Saga and adapted it for the screen. Philip Kaufman dispatched a skeleton crew from Hollywood to film the story entirely on location. Only three Western actors appear in the roles of the lost sailors, while native Inuit plays the rest of the cast. They speak their own language, which is translated for the viewer by subtitles, and the presentation therefore avoids the typical trap of non-Native performers dressed up in make-up and mimicking another culture.
The DVD includes a commentary track by Kaufman, remarks by a University of California Berkley anthropologist on the Inuit culture, and a making-of documentary that notes some of the weather-related hardships. Kaufman reveals that this was only his second Hollywood feature. The producer, Martin Ransohoff, was impressed by his earlier work on The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), a particularly resonant revisionist Western of the failed robbery by the James-Younger gang that features a spooky performance by Robert Duvall as Jesse James. Ransohoff rightfully thought the young director would be a match for the environment, and Kaufman brought to the project a fascination with cultural myths and the predicaments of outsiders.
Three whalers — the officer Billy (Warren Oates), cabin boy Daggett (Timothy Bottoms), and harpooner Portagee (Louis Gossett Jr.) — crash their craft on the ice while in pursuit of their prey. Stranded on the desolate, snow-bound land, they are discovered at the edge of death by a tribe of Inuit. While the indigenous people mock their guests as the spawn of dogs, they nonetheless save them from death, offer them shelter, welcome their participation in the hunt, and even allow them to consort with their women.
Each of the men responds differently to their circumstances. Billy balks at his rescuers’ “otherness,” and connives to exploit their generosity. Portagee welcomes that he is neither ostracized nor abused by other non-white people. Daggett proves to be the most accommodating to their rescuers. He willingly learns their language, engages in their customs, and wishes to become fully assimilated when he falls in love with an Inuit girl.
The interaction of cultures proves tragic in the end. The westerners hold doggedly to their habits and fail to acknowledge the very powerful differences that separate them from the Inuit equilibrium with nature and elevation of communal over individual needs. Compared to many other films released at the time, The White Dawn balances the counterculture’s fascination with returning to our roots with the darker realization, stemming from failures in Vietnam, that interactions between different cultures cannot be other than traumatic. The makers cast non-actors raised in the culture, only two of whom spoke English, and they acted as intermediaries for Kaufman with the remainder of the group.
Kaufman handles the intersection of communities deftly. He neither overplays the “naturalness” of the Inuit nor makes stick figures of the recalcitrant white men. The cinematography by Michael Chapman is doubly audacious, not only for the uncommon impediments he surmounts but also because his work has been so customarily urban (he went on to shoot two of Martin Scorsese’s greatest films, Taxi Driver  and Raging Bull ). While The White Dawn is in color, the overwhelming whiteness and subdued contrasts of the natural hues of the Inuit clothing make for a subtle, evocative palate.
The White Dawn is episodic, devoid of a now familiar hyped-up velocity. As a consequence, some may find it slow, while others will appreciate its attention to ethnographic detail and refusal to succumb to stereotypes. Even if the voyage made by Billy, Daggett, and Portagee ends in calamity, it remains a trip well worth making and a reminder of the diversity of mainstream Hollywood fare before focus groups.