Historically, when the American Movie Business gets it into its head to explore or at least depict a culture far removed from any found within the fifty states, or even some of the ones that do exist within them, at any rate, a culture that is not Los Angeles and is not New York, the results tend to be a film that stands, as if itself a person, benevolently above the actual people it's depicting, lowering itself down to them (perhaps in a bucket) as a gift; or warmly crouches down, to their level, handing itself to them like a father handing his son, or maybe the neighbor’s son, a football. Hence things like “white savior” films, wherein, in essence, a white person tells the story of a non-white person because somebody has to, goddamnit. Which, if you want me to lay all my cards on the table, would bother me somewhat less than it does if more of these films could justify themselves by being any good. Most of them can’t, so the defense is unable to mount a case. And so you have to wonder about the makers of these films, and of the wider world of the American Movie Business, when it comes to these sorts of films, what stories do they actually think they’re telling? Because it looks like it’s the story about how nice it is that they even thought to do this in the first place.
That specific problem, the “white savior” one, is not what plagues Nicholas Ray’s 1960 film The Savage Innocents, which has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films. Based on a novel by Swiss novelist Hans Ruesch, co-written with Ray by the Italian writer Franco Solinas, and financed with Italian, French, and British money, the only American help Ray got on this film was the distribution it received from Paramount. This may explain why its problems are somewhat different than those that you could have expected from a similar Hollywood production, but when all is said and done, you still have a bunch of Americans, French, British, and Italian folks making a movie about Eskimos. Eskimos played by Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican-Irish actors, at that.
None of which, again, especially bothers me in theory. Had I been fortunate enough to like The Savage Innocents, I wouldn’t be here now sputtering things like “Well, but France.” But I did not like The Savage Innocents (in fact, it’s the first Nicholas Ray film I’ve seen that I haven’t at least enjoyed), and more than that, the flaws are inextricable from the situation I’ve just described.
The story is simple: Anthony Quinn plays Inuk, an unmarried hunter whose loneliness is exacerbated by his pride. Though it’s traditional for other men to offer their wives to friends for carnal satisfaction now and again, Inuk has begun refusing such offers, which is seen as rude. Eventually, a matchmaking scheme is set in motion by others in Inuk’s community and after a while he marries Asiak (Yoko Tani). During all this, we see various hunting expeditions, and other rituals and daily chores that might seem unusual to us, the viewers, often narrated by Nicholas Stuart. Along the way, Inuk and his wife encounter something akin to Western culture and its specific ways of life when they go to a trading post to trade furs for a gun, which Inuk has only recently learned existed. Inuk and Asiak are also involved in the accidental death of a white man, which ultimately brings all of the film’s concerns and arguments and preoccupations to a head, as Inuk encounters a Canadian police officer (a pre-Lawrence Peter O’Toole, inexplicably dubbed).
And I didn’t buy a second of it. The film looks as stupendous as you’d expect from Ray – some images, such as those showing Inuk and a friend rowing through the sea, between and alongside mountainous glaciers, are breathtaking; on a giant movie screen, those moments might literally take away one’s breath (the cinematography was a team affair involving the English DP Peter Hennessy, who worked on many documentaries, which fits as some of the film was made by having a crew shadow actual Eskimo hunting expeditions, and the great Aldo Tonti, of Nights of Cabiria and Europe ’51 fame). But the depiction of the Eskimos is frankly appalling, and hard to sit through. Quinn (whose makeup and wig make him look like a Vulcan), and everyone else cast as an Eskimo, is made to caper and constantly giggle, like little children, so innocent are these savages (though who really is the savage). The Savage Innocents may have the decency to be actually about its Eskimo characters, but it betrays no desire to imagine them as adult human beings. Inuk and the others may, in the first half of the film, have never had any contact with what we call the civilized world, but I refuse to believe that this sort of natural isolation leaves anyone so isolated in a state of perpetual childhood. Everything makes Inuk laugh: talk of sex, actual sex, the appearance of food, eating food, hunting, snow, other people. And his laugh isn’t the laugh of a grown person, but the silly, somewhat abashed titter of, not even a real kid, but a nauseatingly sweet movie kid. And this is Quinn’s performance for most of the film.
It should maybe go without saying that authentic or not when it comes to its depiction of Eskimo life and customs and attitudes, given the condescending approach, I was less than convinced that much of what I was seeing corresponded to reality. Again, this might not matter, but when you consider all this in relation to the use of Nicholas Stuart’s narration, it must be assumed that at least part of the ambition of The Savage Innocents is anthropological. Yet am I really expected to believe that when Inuk and Asiak have a baby, neither of them are aware that babies don’t have teeth (the mother and father believe that the toothlessness of their child means their family is cursed)? If they were literally Adam and Eve, okay fine, but both of them exist in a larger Eskimo community. Not a massive community, but big enough to have at various times included a baby here and there. Inuk, for all his childishness is shown as knowing exactly what one needs to do to survive in this cold wasteland (which makes that childishness even harder to swallow, but anyway), but what babies look like is beyond him. And his wife, though both manage to care for the baby, without having to ask around. It’s just that “no teeth” thing that throws them.
Where The Savage Innocents finally goes is interesting, potentially so anyway, but the situation that leads to the film’s end is such a stacked-deck affair that I can’t accept the questions as being fully asked, let alone answered. A film can’t provide insight if it doesn’t seem to possess any. This is somewhat shocking, coming from Nicholas Ray, whose career began with a masterpiece, They Live By Night, and would go on to be one of the strongest (however short it sadly was) and most unique in Hollywood history. They can’t all be knock outs, I guess.