The Savage Innocents (1960)

7:26 PM

What’s wrong with The Savage Innocents? The better question is what’s not wrong with it. The Savage Innocents is an Inuit (“Eskimo”) epic directed by Nicholas Ray, a director at once celebrated and criminally underrated. His films have always harnessed great emotional capacity and Ray truly has an eye for beautiful cinema. Unfortunately, I can’t get on board with the studio epics, that played out the rest of his career. The Savage Innocents is one of those unfortunate epics. 

The Savage Innocents takes place in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, although there isn’t much evidence of a time period until much further along in the film. Inuk (Anthony Quinn) is a kind but lonely Inuit man who wants nothing more than to find a wife, whom he soon finds with Asiak (Yoko Tani). Life is idyllic for a while - Inuk and Asiak spend their days hunting and “laughing” (a projected Hollywood euphemism for sex) during the never-ending cold months, but when Inuk accidentally offends and subsequently accidentally kills a Christian missionary, he and Asiak and their new baby boy are pursued across the ice by a Canadian trooper (Peter O’Toole). Anthony Quinn is a fantastic actor, and I blame Hollywood entirely for the discomfort that arises from his portrayal of Inuk. Interestingly, films of the past like Eskimo (1933) manage to boast an impressive cast of Inuit actors, and not (as in this case), a Mexican-American lead and a majority Japanese supporting cast. A great performance from a pre-Lawrence Peter O’Toole is also butchered when his beautifully warm voice is switched out in favour of a stock American one. It's cinematic sacrilege, but that’s not the only sin committed by the The Savage Innocents. In fact, the film is so rife with offences that it’s difficult to know where to begin. 

I can’t pretend to be an authority of the discrepancies of the film and the culture itself, but as a Canadian I think I might be privy to a better understanding than that of 1960s-era Hollywood. Putting aside disturbing scenes of animal cruelty and the frighteningly inaccurate interchanging of the terms “seal” and “sea lion”, the tradition of wife-swapping is brought up a number of times, as well as the notion of women as “worthless” or “silly” or “useless”. I might attribute the blatant disrespect and flat-out misogyny as a product of the Western “civilized white man” rather than the “primitive” and “uncivilized” culture of the Inuit. But there is also an overarching assumption of ignorance present in The Savage Innocents. When a baby boy is born to Asiak, noticing a (completely natural) absence of teeth, the couple almost leave the poor soul on the ice to be killed by the elements. If only there had been an elderly presence to explain the biological basics. Oh right…Asiak’s completely healthy and nimble mother willingly put herself out on the ice to be eaten by a polar bear, and along with her, a wealth of knowledge that Inuk and Asiak should definitely have known. Because polar bear sacrifice at the ripe old age of sixty is what the Inuit do with their now completely useless elders? And every once in a while during these odd, uncivilized acts, an unfitting voiceover narration interjects to explain the civilized white man’s confusion but eventual resignation for the poor savage Eskimo who don’t know any better. It’s kind of like an omnipresent, super ignorant David Attenborough. It’s really quite fascinating how much cinematic misrepresentation the Inuit culture has been subjected to over the years. Oddly enough, you’d think that such a fascination with the Inuit people would inspire some kind of desire for factual accuracy but that’s been proven wrong time and time again (further viewing: Nanook of the North (1922). 

Frustratingly patronizing portrayals aside, the film is visually stunning. In one scene, hundreds of Walruses charge the water in thunderously awkward flops which is at once silly, but also enchanting in a National Geographic sense. It’s in these little moments of nature that I feel Ray’s presence most, as if he threw the system out the window for a hot minute while he himself became entranced by the North. It’s quite beautiful. Other moments of cinematographic beauty show Inuk gliding effortlessly on glossy arctic water, narrowly avoiding ice chunks and slipping cliffs of snow. These are the moments I treasure because one misaligned insert later and we’re back in the studio.

It’s pretty apparent that the intention of The Savage Innocents is to inspire a kind of morbid fascination or a sympathy even with an alien culture, but it’s problematic when the culture being portrayed is almost entirely a Hollywood fantasy. Compare The Savage Innocents (1960) with Atanarjuat (2001) and/or Maïna (2013) for a more comprehensive look at the Inuit. 

The Savage Innocents (1960)
Dir. Nicholas Ray
Starring Anthony Quinn, Peter O'Toole, Yoko Tani
110 mins | USA

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