THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS mushes Magnetic North into quandary territory from its first startling moments, and stays in ethereal regions between art and artifice until its abrupt finish 110 minutes later. Throughout director Nicholas Ray’s audacious, flawed miniature epic the compass needle spins in circles of natural and cultural disbelief, with dashes of wonder and an abundance of folly. Dismissed back in 1960, it’s lately been re-evaluated by fawning disciples of the director and dutifully, wildly over-praised.
The Arctic: Inuit hunter ‘Inuk’ (Anthony Quinn), chases game, laughs with his friends and seeks a woman to share his igloo and nomadic life. When he mistakes a refusal of food from a missionary and bashes the stranger’s head in, he runs afoul of the White Man’s Rules. Things are tough all over.
“The rules have grown stronger than those who made them.”
Director Ray wrote the screenplay off a 1950 book “Top Of The World”, written by Hans Ruesch, who was from Italy, which has snow (for a while, yet, anyway); that was as close as he ever got to the Pole, basing his novel not so much on research as on the 1933 movie Eskimo.*
Like Ruesch, Ray’s approach to the culture-clash story was muddled but sincere; unlike the desk-sledding author he took crews on location to Hudson Bay in Canada and to Greenland to get 70mm cinematography of the colossal ice-scapes, frigid sea and assorted wildlife. The $1,500,000 budget was put up by Ray and French and Italian producers. Necessary but less-convincing interiors were filmed by British crews at Pinewood Studios in England.
The location work is really beautiful, and—following a jarring opening—the swelling music score from Angelo Lavignino is suitably grand company for the icebergs and creatures. Shots of a herd of walruses and seals are breathtaking. The opener is rough going—the bloody impalement of a swimming polar bear, and Ray delivers a basket of in-your-face scenes with hunting and meat-chomping, as well as a matter-of-fact nude scene that didn’t make it to many local theaters outside Europe.
Quinn is supported by Japanese actress Yoko Tani (a salute for nerve and putting aside modesty) and assorted Chinese and Japanese players. The officer tasked with arresting Inuk is 28-year-old Peter O’Toole. For some reason, the decision was made to dub O’Toole’s voice, which incensed him enough to demand his name be taken off the credits. This was his debut year on film, with roles in The Day They Robbed The Bank of England and Kidnapped. By the time this came out in the States (frozen at 89th place), an un-corked O’Toole was sweating in the Jordanian desert filming Lawrence Of Arabia, with Quinn.
Which brings us back to Tony Q—a one-man tower of rabble when to came to playing earthy ethnics: here, the World’s First 6’2″ Eskimo. Height aside, and at 44, looking a bit mature to be wifeless among Pole-folk, his Inuit impression doesn’t seem innocent so much as impaired, given the amount of chuckling, grunting and general mugging he pulls. Either he over-powered Ray with star clout, or was just given free rein, but one can only assume Yoko Tani’s giggly maiden is someone who appreciates a simpleton, given Inuk’s skills as seal slayer don’t extend to things as basic as comprehension. The lusty peasant-for-all-reasons actor too often played it too BIG. **
Though much of the behavior exhibited by the Inuit characters is presented as ‘authentic’, many observers take issue with Ray’s material as dramatic ‘innocent savage’ hokum rather than accurate representation. At the least, the time-frame setup is fanciful as the characters are astounded by guns and music a good several decades after they would have been aware of them. It’s paternal liberalism: making points about the corruption of fault-free natives from venal outsiders, and in doing so they feel free to twist fact into ‘truth’. This culture snojob often brings up hissy comments about some mythical monolithic “Hollywood”, but since this production involved a score of countries its more like a U.N. of well-meant mis-leads.
Watch for the majestic critters—and weep for their rapidly vanishing environment.
With Carlo Giustini, Michael Chow, Marie Yang, Anthony Chinn, Andy Ho (the burly bald pirate from Swiss Family Robinson) and Yvonne Shima (an aide to Dr.No). Ray’s next project was the huge Bible saga King Of Kings.
* Author Hans Ruesch was renowned as a race-car driver and later as an animal rights activist. Eskimo, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for MGM, was the first feature film shot in Alaska and the first using a Native American language (Inupiat). It won the first Film Editing Oscar. Though it was a serious (and costly) production Louis B. Mayer had it advertised thusly: “Eskimo Wife Traders! Weird Tale of the Arctic!””The strangest moral code on the face of the earth — men who share their wives but kill if one is stolen!
** Controlled– by someone like David Lean– Quinn’s bigger-than-life swagger could be marvelous, as with ‘Auda’ in ‘Lawrence’. His broad style fit Viva Zapata, Lust For Life, Wild Is The Wind, The Guns Of Navarone and Zorba The Greek, but it blew gas pockets into The Happening, Lost Command and The Secret Of Santa Vittoria. As it was, he considered his three favorite roles to be La Strada, Zorba the Greek and this job as Inuk in The Savage Innocents. While overdone (and too damn big, Nick!), he does have some good moments here, but he was much better in another 1960 picture, one that also went into the dustbin, Heller In Pink Tights, where he was uncharacteristically restrained. He didn’t like the part, and director George Cukor (who’d guided his expansive mode in Wild Is The Wind) was dismayed, but it works for me. I always pretty much like Quinn, even when he spits food and snorts. Urban legend has it that Bob Dylan wrote “The Mighty Quinn” as a riff off this movie: good enough for Manfred Mann in 1968.