Saturday, December 2, 2017
The Savage Innocents
Nicholas Ray's 1960 Eskimo adventure film, The Savage Innocents, has been difficult to see for many years. (This is curious because the film has been made famous by a Bob Dylan song -- "the Mighty Quinn", presumably referring to Anthony Quinn's role as star of this picture.) Neither fish nor fowl, the movie is an Italian-British-French co-production shot, in part, at Cinecitta near Rome and at Pinehaven Studios in the United Kingdom. So far as I can determine, this film about Eskimos has no Eskimos in the cast. Although claims have been made for the movie (David Thomson cites several scenes as containing brilliant touches), The Savage Innocents is laughably bad. It's a terrible, racist movie that is not redeemed by a few beautifully shot sequences. Ray wrote the script, apparently based on a book, and the dialogue is risible: the Eskimos refer to themselves in the third person as "someone" or "this one" -- the female characters talk like this: "This useless woman wishes to laugh with you." "Laugh" we are told is an Eskimo term for "having sex." There are plenty of nose-kisses in the movie and Anthony Quinn plays the hero "Inuk the Inuk" by mugging and grinning and showing confusion like a cartoon caricature of Fred Flintstone -- by this I mean that the big lunk, Fred Flintstone is the more subtle and believable character, in part, because he doesn't talk like a retarded Yoda and refer to himself in the third person. A bevy of beautiful Japanese girls play Inuk the Inuk's love interests -- they're slender, petite, and very glamorous-looking in their fur coats notwithstanding the fact that they are required to chew on hides to soften them and feed people by regurgitating blubber and meat into their mouths. The first half of the film involves Inuk the Inuk acquiring a wife -- the Eskimos seem to like to push and punch at one another. In one scene, one of Inuk's buddies offers him his wife. Inuk refuses because he "wants a woman of his own." This leads to Inuk's buddy bashing his head against the side of his igloo until the ice brick falls inward. Later, when Inuk tries this maneuver with a missionary who has rejected his offer to "laugh" with the hero's wife, he accidentally kills the priest. The woman says: "I guess you bumped too hard." Inuk responds: "Or his head was too soft." This accidental homicide sets up the confusing last half-hour in which the hero is hunted by a couple of lawmen, including a teenage Peter O'Toole. (O'Toole is hard to recognize -- he's still a little chubby with baby-fat -- and his voice has been dubbed; this led O'Toole to unsuccessfully petition to have his name removed from this turkey.) The film is plenty "savage" -- an old woman gets put out on the ice to be eaten by a polar bear. (She says: "the bear eats the mother-in-law, the husband kills the bear, and the grandson will eat the bear's meat -- so I will come back to you." I suppose that's one way of looking at it.) We see a lot of animals killed, scenes shot in Greenland or the Arctic with scary and gory realism. One of the white men falls in the water and freezes to death in the course of ninety seconds -- "don't touch him," Inuk says, "he's already a dead man." Peter O'Toole's hands get frozen and Inuk has to hack open the guts of dog to provide warmth to save the man's fingers. When Inuk's feet are cold, his wife obligingly puts them against her naked breasts to warm them up. The rude missionary's death is prompted, in part, by his refusal to eat Inuk's "oldest meat" -- that is, decomposing meat that is tasty with wriggling maggots. There's a lot of extreme imagery in the film but for some reason it doesn't register as anything but goofy -- this is because Quinn is completely wrong for the part and the dialogue is so risible that just when you start to develop interest in the story someone will say something so stupid that it staggers you: "A woman is different from a seal or a walrus," Inuk confides to his buddy. Of course, the film bears no relationship to anything real -- Inuk is depicted as a man without any kind of culture at all. He has no religion and is not embedded in any sort of tribal or cultural matrix -- he's strangely isolated. In Ray's view, these Eskimos are so stupid that they have to be told how women give birth. In one crucial scene, Inuk and his wife decide to expose their infant son on an ice-floe as defective because he is born without teeth -- by this point in the film, the movie has collapsed into incoherence: we are shown this scene but it has no outcome and we never learn how it was that the child was spared death. (The "useless woman" has been told by the grandma, eaten by the bear, that if she has a boy "(she) must cut him free from your body and lick him clean; if it is girl, take her out on the ice and stuff her mouth with snow before you become too fond of her.") Inuk doesn't seem to know about the white men and is shocked when a fellow hunter uses a gun. He goes to a trading post where everyone sits around listening to primitive rock 'n roll, the Eskimos and traders dancing to Chubby Checkers "twist" records. (This is the part of the film that seems most consistent with Ray's other work -- the claustrophobic scenes in the trading post are reasonably well-observed and depraved in a disturbing way.) About a third of the film was shot by a very talented Second Unit in the Arctic and that footage is spectacularly beautiful -- in particular, one scene where the men on kayaks glide through mountainous icebergs is breathtaking. But these scenes don't go anywhere --there's no spatial or dramatic continuity. Most of the film is shot on sound-stages that are heaped up with fake snow and that don't look even remotely real -- although, sometimes, there is a fugitive charm in the way the sets are stylized: purple and red aurora borealis poking around the edges of the paper-mache heaps of ice. Ray seems to have been in control of this movie -- he wrote the ludicrous dialogue and it represents his vision, I assume, and its awful: racist, stupid, and unrealistic. As an antidote, viewers should hunt for the long and sublime film from 2001 Atanarjuet: The Fast Runner, a movie actually shot in the Arctic by real Inuit people starring Inuits and directed by one of them -- that picture is equally stylized, but it is alarming, beautiful, and gives us a glimpse of the complex culture developed by these hunter-gatherer people.