Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The White Dawn

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

At times one feels that the elemental motions induced by the instinct to survive almost dictate a pace of their own in this movie about the initial contact between a group of nomadic Eskimos and the English-speaking world back in the days when New Bedford sailors scoured the northern reaches of the continent in search of whales. There is a certain natural sense of episodic movement in the migration of a people from one village site to another as the food supply runs low and new, richer hunting grounds must be found. There is an ease and unhurriedness in the way the camera lingers on the things Eskimos really do (or did) with their time which avoids being static because it’s really pretty interesting, whether we are witnessing the hunting of seals or the building of an igloo or the ritual pairing-off of couples following an evening of vaguely familiar-seeming games and frenzied dancing by a few of the local boys decked out in antlers. Even without the story of three sailors who are stranded somewhere in Baffin Bay and subsequently rescued by Eskimos, this would make an engaging documentary on a foreign culture; and in fact it is so difficult not to be genuinely moved by the warmth and humanness which flows so generously from The White Dawn that one is tempted to believe it a better film than, perhaps, it is.

Indeed, I often got the feeling that all Kaufman had to do was point his camera in the general direction of the Eskimos, knowing that their unsurprisingly natural abilities to be themselves would immediately engage our sympathy and compassion. Which it does. There is no denying the spontaneous chemistry at work among the characters as they attempt with varying degrees of success and unsuccess to get along. Timothy Bottoms, who plays the young, still relatively pliant and adaptable cabin boy Daggett (what a great 19th-century name), is superb at appearing completely unaffected—swiping at floating goose feathers and blowing them whimsically into the air as he smiles at a pretty Eskimo girl, or faltering with goodnatured humility when he tries to communicate in the native tongue to the point that when it comes time for him to deliver presumably serious lines to, say, Warren Oates (“My God, Billy! These people give you their food …”), they tend to ring hollow. Some of the best “dialogue” really occurs when neither party can underdtand what the other is saying. In a beautiful moment inside one of the huts where the three whalers and five or six Eskimos have been scrunched together for God knows how many days weathering a rainstorm, an old woman is chanting some Eskimo ditty. Warren Oates, the grizzled, immutable mate who never does a lick of work but eats the food and sleeps with the women, is ready to climb the walls. But Portagee (Lou Gossett) a faraway look in his eyes, takes up the chant in harmony.

Scenes like this glow, and they indicate the discretion which Kaufman and Ransohoff use in dealing with a subject whose relevance in these days of disputed fishing rights and North Slope oil fields could easily be manhandled to fit the prevailing trend of sympathy for the plight of Native Americans. And one thing The White Dawn most definitely is not is some kind of microcosmic blueprint for the ripping-off of the red man (although that is in fact what happens during the course of the movie). Perhaps Kaufman’s closest brush with blatancy is a sequence wherein the three whalers brew some homemade whiskey over a seal oil fire and get half the village drunk. An Eskimo girl freezes to death in the aftermath. But even this episode is handled in such a way as to have some thematic justification beyond its grab-bag appeal to those who want to come out of the movie with confirmed convictions about how we fucked over the Eskimos. In a sort of cultural point-of-view turnabout, the distillation process of the whiskey, accompanied by the repetitious intonations of an old whaler’s chant, itself becomes ritual, as mysterious to the Eskimos as are some of their doings to the sailors. That the girl does die as a result of getting too drunk and that the responsibility lies at the feet of those who cooked the stuff up is very much to the point, as is the fact that the whalers did after all steal that boat and food when the village was tottering on the brink of famine. But in the overview the moral shading of the film is kept ambiguous, its tone being one more of sadness and inevitability than of anger. For instance, at the end, just after Oates, Gossett, and Bottoms in that order have been killed because the shaman has finally convinced the people that the three have brought nothing but bad luck, the harmonious chant of Portagee and the old woman is reiterated on a voiceover. The simple beauty of the little song and the sudden glimmer of warmth it rekindles in the memory, juxtaposed as it is to the harsh reality of what has just happened, provides an appropriately disturbing quality which sets one to pondering where, if anywhere, lies the blame for all that has gone so wrong, and whether the sailors received their due or were victims of the Eskimos’ paranoid, superstitious impulse.

The White Dawn does not incline to judgment, which is perhaps why it seems refreshing and unforced. It is a straightforward movie, sometimes impartial to the point of being documentary, and Kaufman apparently saw his task as one of faithfully recreating what actually happened without calling a great deal of attention to his directorial prowess. Michael Chapman’s camera is never obtrusive, nor—aside from a couple of nice pans past ice floes as boats slip quietly by—does he or Kaufman try to do much that might seem visually clever. And perhaps this is how it should be. Little elaboration is really called for here. A more sensitive eye—a Troell, for instance—might be out of place. Whereas Troell tends, sometimes meticulously but always with a deceptively casual arbitrariness, to look for things in nature, aiming for the poetic serenity of unassuming objects through which he carefully, bit by bit, weaves his visual tapestry, Kaufman and Chapman don’t make any such effort to be precise. They seem to rely more heavily upon the inherent strength of the material than upon an ability to instill any degree of directorial embellishment on the physical and cultural landscapes with which they are dealing.

Direction: Philip Kaufman. Screenplay: James Houston and Thomas Rickman, after the novel by Houston; adaptation by Martin Ransohoff. Cinematography: Michael Chapman. Editing: Douglas Stewart. Music: Henry Mancini. Production: Martin Ransohoff.
The Players: Timothy Bottoms, Lou Gossett, Warren Oates, Simonie Kopapick, Joanassie Salomonie, Pilititak, and other Eskimos of the Canadian Arctic.

Copyright © Rick Hermann