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November 28, 2006

The Savage Innocents

savage innocents.jpg

Nicholas Ray - 1960
Eureka! Region 0 DVD

Seeing The Savage Innocents twice, the second time with the commentary track, I am struck by how much stronger the film is visually. The stilted English language dialogue and the off-screen narration almost undo what is good about what turned out to be one of Ray's last, more personal, films. Thematically, the film has elements in common with They Live by Night with its fugitive lovers, as well as Rebel without a Cause with its protagonist who finds himself caught between societies and unmet needs.

In terms of films about Eskimos or Inuit, the accuracy of the film is a matter of faith. While author Hans Reusch based his book on research and plot points from the 1933 film Eskimo, Ray actually visited the Arctic before shooting. While it is also not clear how much of a hand Franco Solinas, some of the concerns of the film are also consistent with the writer who collaborated most famously with Gillo Pontecorvo and Costa-Gavras. The use of Asian actors to portray native North Americans wasn't really used again until Little Big Man, while the plot point of the Inuit men offering their wives as an act of hospitality was also used in Philip Kaufman's under-appreciated The White Dawn. At the very least, the DVD of The Savage Innocents is the opportunity to see Ray's film in the most complete version available, unlike the eighty-nine minute version that was released theatrically in the U.S.

The casting of Anthony Quinn is problematic primarily because Quinn was Hollywood's ethnic or primitive man, or both, throughout much of his career. This is a very physical performance with displays of brute strength. The animality of the the character Quinn portrays is seen in the first few minutes, leering at a couple snuggling in their igloo, and grabbing some nearby meat. As cute as Yoko Tani may be, her costume, among the tailored furs worn by the cast, suggests white fur hot pants, again inspiring some disbelief about any veracity claimed by the film. The main narrative is about the conflict between Eskimo culture and the laws and rules imposed by "civilization". While the dialogue and narration hammer the audience with the idea that Eskimos are unlike the presumed audience, the visuals sometimes suggest that everyone, whether white or Eskimo, is some kind of alien.

According to the commentary, The Savage Innocents was originally made in a 70mm version. Certainly this is a film that would benefit from being seen on a huge movie palace screen. The film is full of long shots, vast expanses of snow, ice and an almost white sky. Characters are often filmed from a distance, dwarfed by nature. In his perceptive New York Times review, Eugene Archer likened The Savage Innocents to a film by Antonioni. Nicholas Ray was one of the few directors who instinctively understood how to use the wide screen and was always comfortable with that format. With The Savage Innocents Ray shows his comfort also with a seemingly empty screen.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 28, 2006 02:03 AM