Monday, January 31, 2011

Movie Monday: The White Dawn

I asked my friends on my Facebook page to recommend movies for me to review, now that I've posted all the archived ones from 2008-2010. Many good suggestions were made, and I decided to start with a film I'd never even heard of before: the 1974 action/drama The White Dawn.

The White Dawn is directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, the underrated Philip Kaufman, and stars the always-enjoyable Warren Oates, as well as Louis Gossett Jr. and Timothy Bottoms, as three whalers in the late 19th century who, after they capsize their boat, find themselves stranded and are taken in by a native Inuit tribe.

The film opens in black and white, using a grainy, older version of the Paramount logo (an unusual touch) and a newsreel-esque prologue (complete with old school iris ins and outs, also in black and white), explaining what whaling consisted of during this time.

Thanks to Warren Oates' Billy's carelessness, the small boat he, Daggett (Bottoms) and Portagee (Gossett) are hunting in overturns, and they have to crawl onto the icy land nearby. You get an idea of what kind of movie this is going to be right from the beginning, when a fourth whaler, walking along with Daggett and Portagee, simply collapses from exhaustion and cold, and the other keep walking, not giving their companion a second look.

As someone who hates the cold weather like I do, this opening scene is...well, chilling. Icicles form on the beards of all the men, and in one close up you can even see them on Bottoms' eyelashes.
This is a cold, hard land: the tribe that finds these strange men wastes no time stripping the dead man of all his possessions, leaving his naked corpse on the ice as they carry the other three back to their village. Once there, they mock these strangers as "dog children", but nevertheless feed them and nurse them back to health.

Daggett, the youngest, seems the most interested in learning from the Eskimos who have taken him in, while Billy wants nothing more than to leave as soon as possible. In the meantime, he makes every effort to one-up these people, like arranging wrestling matches (Portagee beats a husky young man from a neighboring tribe, much to the everyone's dismay after Billy engages in a bit of trash-talking). Billy also talks about returning to "civilization" and then coming back to exploit the tribe for profit.
The White Dawn was shot entirely on location, with real Inuit tribes, not actors, so much of what you see seems to real--which means there's a lot of animal-killing on display: a polar bear*, a seal, and a goose (in a particularly gruesome, zombie movie-ish scene) all get it, and while of course that's simply what life is when you're living out in the wild, it didn't make the movie easy to watch.

Daggett eventually falls in love with a native girl (how anyone event thinks of sex in this brutally cold climate is beyond me), and begins to believe he could stay with the tribe for the rest of his life.

For their part, Billy starts to lose it, as does Portagee. The tribe starts to believe the spirits of dead animals are rising, and a respected shaman believes they are cursed, departing the tribe.
This causes things to get even worse between the tribe and the men, and among the men themselves. I don't want to spoil the film's ending, suffice it to say the tribe, in its attempt to rid itself of the "dog children", will never be the same.

The White Dawn is a particularly hard film to recap, because its not really about plot: sure, there's a through line, but the film is really more about little moments, subtle realizations and the interplay between people. Its not a fun film to watch, by any stretch of the imagination.

But it is wonderfully acted and directed, and presents a compelling story about an extreme clash of cultures. Also, you have to admire a film crew willing to shoot a film in an unforgiving climate like this: you have to really want to tell this story just to even try and make a movie like this. I'm sure if this script (based on a book, supposedly from a true story) was pitched nowadays, studio execs would say "Can't we move it somewhere more commercial, like Hawaii? Let's call it 'Hula Dawn'!"

I'm going to try and post a new film review every Monday, so if you want to make a recommendation, leave a comment here or on my Facebook page. Thanks!

This week's film suggested by Dan O'Connor!

(*I am relieved to learn, via director Philip Kaufman's audio commentary track, that the polar bear death scene is fake)

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