Moana with Sound (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) – After creating what (in retrospect) is generally considered the first documentary feature, Nanook of the North, in the snows of northern Canada, filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the South Seas island of Savai’i to create a similar production around the Polynesian natives. Like Nanook, Moana (1926) is not a true documentary record but a recreation of a long lost culture for the cameras created in collaboration with locals, who draw from their own historical memory. And it was the film that inspired the term “documentary,” which film critic (and later documentary producer) John Grierson coined while reviewing the film.
Moana is a poetic portrait of Polynesian life as an South Seas paradise, the opposite of Nanook, where the Inuit people fight to survive the harshness of the elements. The pace of life is easy and gentle in the Pacific sun, food plentiful in the sea and growing all around them, just waiting for anyone—even a child—to pluck the coconuts off the trees. Hunting and gathering is akin to play in this culture that was, again as in Nanook, long lost by the time Flaherty put his camera on these people. His filmmaking reflects the theme, each scene taking its time to play out, not to record every detail of finding fresh water in a branch, climbing a palm tree with a simple woven band wrapped around the ankles, or hunting a wild boar (the only real threat to human life on the island), but to appreciate the grace with which these activities are accomplished. The gentleness of the filmmaking—which was as painstakingly created for the camera as any Hollywood drama—creates a lovely, luscious film, a great leap forward in Flaherty’s cinematic talent.
Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.
Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.
These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.
Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made KingKong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.
Sabu! (Eclipse Series 30) (Criterion) presents three Alexander Korda productions (all directed by his brother, Zoltan Korda) starring Selar Shaik, renamed Sabu when was elevated from boy elephant driver of a maharaja to star of the film Elephant Boy (1937). It was perfect casting — the 12-year-old Sabu (who learned his lines phonetically) rides and clambers over the full-sized elephant with such ease that you never think of him as an actor — but it’s the boy’s exotic beauty, authentic sincerity and unselfconscious screen charisma that brings the character alive.
Robert Flaherty, the great pioneering documentary filmmaker, shares directing credit. He shot the great wildlife photography of the film, notably the majestic herds of elephants marching through the jungles and wading across the rivers, while Korda handled the dramatic scenes in the studio (Sabu was flown to London for these scenes, his first trip out of India). But it also has its share of Hail Britannia colonialism, as Sabu’s Toomai uses his skills with the elephants to deliver the herds to the British, becoming essentially a prized scout for the occupying powers. There’s no irony here — the Hungarian born Alexander Korda embraced his British citizenship with a passion and celebrated its empire and its history in almost all of his films.
Sabu became a star and was immediately cast in The Drum (1938), another drama of British colonial power in India with Sabu as a young prince targeted by a power-hungry uncle (Raymond Massey in brownface) and protected by a kindly British officer (Roger Livesey) and his wife (Valerie Hobson). Sabu’s energy and enthusiasm dominates the adventure, which was photographed in color by the great Georges Perinal, even as he idolizes the military grandeur of the British army and teams up with them to fight his uncle, a man amassing power to drive the British out of India.
Jungle Book (1942), considered by many to be the definitive version of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, is the highlight of the set, a glorious Technicolor jungle fantasy with Sabu, now a young man, a confident movie star and an acrobat of actor, as the grown jungle orphan Mowgli. Adopted by a childless couple when he’s captured visiting a village at the edge of his jungle home (he’s captivated by the fires in the village), he’s a wild boy they attempt to tame while the greed and prejudice of a few villagers shows him that society is no more civilized and a great deal more duplicitous than the law of the jungle. Joseph Calleia is the worst of the human villains, driven by avarice to murder for the lost treasure the Mowgli has found in the heart of the jungle.
Framed by a storyteller entertaining his audience the grand adventures of Mowgli and the jungle animals, it has a quality not of storybook but of folk tales come to life. The production uses real animals (and majestic specimens at that) for the most part as the jungle characters while California forests and Hollywood sets to double for Indian jungles and ancient ruins. It’s a visual delight with grand imagery and adventure and Sabu swings on vines and talks to the animals (both friend and foe) like Korda’s exotic young answer to Tarzan with more articulation. And there’s none of that colonial idealization of British values and western occupation. This is just pure storytelling joy.
For the completist, Sabu made “The Thief of Bagdad” for Korda between “The Drum” and “Jungle Book,” which is available separately from Criterion. No supplements on this Eclipse set apart from film notes by Criterion’s house film historian Michael Koresky. You can read his essays at the Criterion Current here.