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Swashbuckling Fantasy that Makes Trenchant Points about Colonialism and its Effects
Superficially Universal's film is another entry in the cycle showcasing the limited acting but ample bodily talents of Maria Montez, supported by the equally statuesque Jon Hall. Neither of them have to do do much except look good in a series of exotic costumes, while Hall gets at least two opportunities to get his kit off and swim underwater, on the last occasion to rescue Orano (Sabu) who is at risk of drowning. The Technicolor sets are opulent - by R. A. Gausman and I. Webb - and director Arthur Lubin shows sufficient understanding of his audience's wants to allow the interaction to be interrupted for an exotic dance with plenty of fleshy bodies on display.
Yet despite its routine formula WHITE SAVAGE manages to make some significant political points. It asks us to reflect on Hall's behavior as a white settler in a native village, and to consider whether he learns the importance of racial integration, or whether he simply approaches life there on his own terms. Lubin does not offer any concrete answer, but contrasts Hall's generally amenable nature with arch-colonist Sam Miller (Thomas Gomez), who wants to possess the Princess (Montex) for himself and take all the spoils as well.
The lure of filthy lucre is compelling. The Princess's brother Tamara (Turhan Bey) has sacrificed his native integrity for gambling, and is so in debt to Miller that he cannot save himself. Caught in a racial limbo between capitalism and tradition, he cuts a pathetic figure with his open floral neck shirt, his generally woebegone manner and his tendency to drown his sorrows in tobacco and alcohol. In the end he is knifed to death: we might feel that this comes as something of a welcome release for a man who eagerly sought the false rewards of capitalism and suffered thereby. It is significant that the role should have been essayed by Turhan Bey, an Austrian-born Turkish actor who made a habit of playing racially and ethnically complicated parts at this time.
The film ends with a spectacular set-destruction, as the colonists finally overreach themselves and incur the wrath of the pagan god, proving beyond doubt the ineffectiveness of human interactions with the universal. Hall and Montez end up getting married and having a baby - the perfect example, it would seem, of a racially mixed marriage. Or perhaps not, as this is a Hollywood fantasy.
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