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The mighty Quinn
A region 0 DVD review of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS by Slarek
 

For a more sensitive modern audience, Nicholas Ray's 1959 The Savage Innocents may present a few problems. For a start, an animal gets killed on screen, and in these pre-CGI days it gets killed for real. The opening sequence, cut from the original theatrical release, sees a polar bear swimming in the arctic waters shortly before it is hit twice by spears and begins bleeding into the sea, the innocence and savagery of the title, the commentary track suggests. In a documentary on the Inuit people we may well expect this, but in a fictional feature it is likely to catch the unwary by nasty surprise.

And then there's the cast. Despite the story being about the Inuit, or the Eskimo people as they were then called, there are precious few if any Eskimos in it. The lead character was born in Mexico and his family and friends are played by a mixture of Japanese and Chinese actors. They are about as believable as Eskimos as Marlon Brandon was as a Japanese in Teahouse of the August Moon (or, indeed, certain Chinese actresses are presently as Japanese Geishas). The Eskimo life is as romanticised as it was by Robert Flaherty in his 1922 Nanook of the North, and is observed from a (then) modern American perspective (we just can't get away from Memoirs of a Geisha, can we). Even the title betrays this viewpoint, suggesting the Eskimo people as savage innocents: innocent because they do not understand the ways of so-called 'civilised' society, savage because they do not adhere to its moralistic and behavioural restrictions.

So one for the Cupboard of Shame, then? Absolutely no bloody way. When I said they were barriers I meant it, but these are barriers that should be soundly kicked aside in order to get to what is, especially for its time and country of origin, a genuinely remarkable work.

Think about it for a minute. The film was distributed by a Hollywood studio (Paramount) back in 1959, a time when there were almost no lead actors of ethnic origin working in a mainstream cinema that regularly cast white actors in ethnic roles. This film's star, Anthony Quinn, portrayed characters from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds during his career: he played an Italian in Fellini's La Strada in 1954, French painter Paul Gauguin in Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life in 1956 (which also featured Kirk Douglas as Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh), Arab tribal leader Auda abu Tayi in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, and was nominated for an Oscar for the title role in Michael Cacoyannis's Zorba the Greek in 1964. And let's not forget that the first feature film with an Inuit director, a genuinely Inuit cast and telling an authentic Inuit story – Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner – did not appear until 2001. And at a time when Native Americans were still being portrayed (sometimes by white actors in redskin make-up) as the bad guys in westerns, The Savage Innocents shows the Eskimos and their lifestyle in a surprisingly positive light. It includes elements that would be regarded by so-called 'civilised' society of the time as primitive and even morally unsound, and presents them in as everyday events and actions, which to the characters in this setting they were, of course.

Consider the first post-title scene. Jovial Eskimo bachelor Inuk arrives at the igloo of his good friend Anarwik and his wife Lulik and finds them in bed, and they are not sleeping, if you get my drift. There is no embarrassment on anybody's part – indeed, Inuk grabs some food and all three exchange cheerful conversation as if they've just met up in a bar. A short while later Inuk is expressing his desire to take a wife of his own, not easy in a climate where the men greatly outnumber the women, and Anarwik, as his friend, offers his own wife for Inuk to 'laugh' with (oh come on, you can work it out), something that is clearly common practice here. This one time Inuk turns Anarwik down – he wants his own woman – and Anarwik takes considerable offence. A scuffle ensues and Inuk settles the argument by banging Anarwik's head against the igloo wall hard enough to knock him silly. This is 1959 and here is a film in which the concept of the sharing of wives with friends and visitors for sex is presented as perfectly natural behaviour. And it is, at least in the context of the society in which we have very quickly been immersed. Later examples of cultural behavioural differences include Inuk reviving a man's frozen hands by killing a dog, cutting open its belly and thrusting the affected limbs into the innards (it's OK, it happens just off screen), Inuk's wife-to-be warming his feet by placing them under her clothing against her chest – something a few seconds later is on full display – and a grandmother who is no longer able to shape leather with her worn-out teeth being left on the ice to be eaten by a polar bear (so that it might eat, live, and be later killed by Inuk and feed his own children).

Crucial to this non-judgemental presentation is the absence of the innocent newcomer, a familiar film character used to extract plot and character information and react to events on the audience's behalf. With no outsider passing judgement on the society and its people, we are more readily able to feel part of this community and accept its behavioural codes as the norm. How accurate they are is another matter entirely, but some cursory research suggests that much of it is on the nose, and no less authentic than Flaherty's portrait of Nanook and his family (tellingly, there is a seal-catching scene early on that seems to directly pay tribute to Flaherty). And having engaged us with the characters and their customs and convinced us us to accept the concept of open marriages, the film then has a laugh at the idea of God and religion and suggests that the whole concept of free trade, the bedrock of western capitalism, is somehow corrupting and destructive.

But I'm getting ahead of myself – let's talk a little plot, or should I say plots, as there are actually three. The first introduces us to Inuk and his lifestyle and revolves around his search for a wife. And wouldn't you know it, no women come along for ages and then two turn up at once, both daughters of Anarwik's brother. Inuk can't choose between them, but ends up with Asiak (and her mother) by default after her sister Imina is snagged by a less hesitant bachelor.

Plot two kicks off with Inuk patiently hunting a polar bear (you have to concentrate or switch on the commentary to realise just how he is wearing the animal down), only to be shaken when an explosive sound results in the bear's sudden death. This is Inuk's first experience of the deadly power of a rifle, wielded by a fellow hunter who tells Inuk that he too can own a weapon of such power by trading fox pelts. Inuk thus abandons the traditional practice of hunting only what you need for food and spends the following months chasing exclusively after foxes, then hauls them to a distant trading post to gain his firearm. The trading post represents a somewhat jarring disruption of Inuk's until then happily simple life (visually echoed in the mise-en-scene, as pure white snowscapes give way to the darker, cluttered interior of the trading post), modernity versus traditional values, vividly represented by the rock 'n' roll song that blasts out of the record player, making Inuk jump and rudely reminding us of everything disruptive and destructive about the intrusion of western society on cultures the world over.

This is also the clearest indication of the film's idealisation of Eskimo culture. Until this point there is little indication of the period in which the film is set, save for the opening voiceover that talks of the Eskimos using bows and arrows in 'the atomic age', but the record played at the trading post puts us firmly in the 1950s. One of the criticisms aimed at Nanook of the North was that Flaherty had his subjects hunting with spears, paddling their kayaks and living in igloos when by then they were already using rifles to hunt, outboard motors to power their boats and living in wooden buildings in the western style, and that was back in 1922. Inuk would have to be living in a pretty remote spot to have missed out on thirty years of subsequent change, but like Nanook he is presented by the filmmakers as symbolic of a vanishing way of life, a view encapsulated by the trader's comment on the arrival of Inuk and his family at the trading post, "Ten years ago, nearly all the Eskimos were like those three. Magnificent."

Plot three, which provides the films dramatic core, begins with the visit of a friendly missionary to Inuk's igloo, his intention being to bring Christianity to the lives of these happily godless people. Inuk fails to understand the man's message or intentions – on being told that the Lord will be with him on his travels, he wonders if this Lord is a good hunter, while Asiak remarks that he will have to bring his own sledge. As a traditional act of friendliness, Inuk first offers the man his oldest meat and then the opportunity to 'laugh' with his wife – the missionary reacts with horror, offending Inuk, who once again bangs the man's head against the igloo wall. But missionary heads are clearly more fragile than Eskimo ones and the man is killed. Enter, some time later, the two Mounties charged with arresting Inuk and taking him back to trial and probably execution, and the clash of cultures is brought to a head.

As I said up front, there are a few barriers to mount, but if you can contextualise the film into it's place and time, deal with the non-Eskimo cast and the occasional romanticising of the Eskimo lifestyle, and shield your eyes if you have to for the opening scene, then The Savage Innocents is a seriously impressive achievement, true outsider cinema that celebrates without overly idealising the values and lifestyle of a people whose ways are very different to those of the intended audience. Anthony Quinn may be a good foot taller than even the lankiest Eskimo, but in every other way his performance is just right, from his facial reactions and body language to his vocal delivery – this is Quinn at pretty much the top of his game. The supporting cast do well, but in amongst them lies a performance that may have been of considerable note, were it not for post-production interference. One of the Mounties is played, in his first film role, by a young Peter O'Toole, but although facially and physically he is already displaying the star quality that three years later would explode in Lawrence of Arabia, his voice has been dubbed with what the commentary nicely describes as Spaghetti Western American, making it impossible to judge his delivery in what proves to be a crucial role for the narrative.

Visually the film is often breathtaking, and while the mix of location, studio work and process shots is sometimes a tad distracting, much of the footage shot on location in the Arctic is genuinely beautiful and the arrangement of characters and objects within the scope frame consistently impressive. It even manages a moment of surrealism amidst the harshness of wilderness survival, as a man, retrieved from the icy arctic waters despite Inuk's dismissal of his survival chances, stands rigid and freezes to death before our eyes.

The Savage Innocents may not go down in history as a bona fide classic, but it's still an extraordinary example of outsider cinema produced within the studio system. With its warmly uncritical portrayal of a culture and lifestyle whose rules differ markedly from our own, it cannot help but come across as progressive and forward-looking on a variety of issues, and can be seen as a key work both for director Ray and star Quinn. And yes, the rumours are apparently true that Bob Dylan's The Mighty Quinn was inspired by this film. As the song says, "You'll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn..."

sound and vision

Despite some minor flickering in the early stages and a tiny bit of damage here and there, this is a largely excellent transfer that belies the film's age and wonderfully showcases Aldo Tonti's scope cinematography. Colour, contrast and detail all appear to be on the nose, and the white snowscapes, a notorious nightmare for any digital medium, look terrific. The framing is 2.35:1 and the picture in anamorphically enhanced.

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack has a slight hiss, a few minr pops and the occasional crackle, but is otherwise very pleasing and clear.

extra features

The main extra here is a Commentary by critic and journalist David Ehrenstein and the US correspondent for Cahiers du cinema Bill Krohn. It gets off to a slightly goofy start as Ehrenstein, observing the wide shot that follows the titles, says "Here we are in the arctic wastes of...the arctic wastes," but this is a rare example of the two fumbling for words. On the whole they provide a very enjoyable and informative analysis of the film, its relationship to the novel on which it was based (Hans Ruesch's Top of the World), the footage that was cut for its original British and American releases, as well as the various influences of and relationships to other works, from Brecht and Edward Hopper to the anthropological documentaries of Jean Rouch. In an interesting and effective move that I last encountered on the Lantana DVD, the two are given a separate front speaker each, making it easy to know who is saying what, even if this initially gives you a bit of a start. Oh yes, and stay with the end credits if you want to hear the pair singing The Mighty Quinn.

The Gallery consists of 17 front-of-house cards and posters for the film, most in good shape and all reproduced at a decent size.

The usual Masters of Cinema Booklet was not supplied with the review disc, but we can expect this to be up the usual high standards and should feature reproductions of the original promotional material for the film.

summary

Despite my enthusiasm for the film, I'm not going to pretend that The Savage Innocents is a masterpiece, but it fully deserves to find favour in the realms of cult cinema, where it should sit very neatly. Checking reaction on the IMDB and beyond I was surprised and encouraged by the strength of passion I saw for the film, with negative reaction confined largely to the on-screen animal killing (understandable, but it's over quickly) and its seeming rejection of western Christian values, which alone will win it a place in many hearts.

Masters of Cinema have scored again by restoring the film to its original cut and presenting it so handsomely. For fans of outsider cinema, this comes highly recommended. Self-appointed moral guardians, on the other hand, should steer clear and go find someone to laugh with.

The Savage Innocents

France / Italy / UK 1959
109 mins
director
Nicholas Ray
starring
Anthony Quinn
Yoko Tani
Carlo Giustini
Peter O'Toole
Marie Yang

DVD details
region 0
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Commentary
Gallery
Booklet
distributor
Eureka Masters of Cinema
release date
23 January 2006
review posted
23 January 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews