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In 1896, three whalers are stranded in the Arctic North Canada and seek refuge with an Eskimo tribe. Gradually they gain control with the Eskimo village and introduce gambling, booze, theft and their special variation of sex. In the beginning, the Eskimos accept it but slowly the cultural tension starts growing. Written by
Frank Christensen <email@example.com>
Looking back from the 21st century, it is obvious that from the moment Columbus set foot in the new world the indigenous peoples of the Americas were doomed. It is equally obvious to a thoughtful viewer from 2005 that a movie made in 1973 about three shipwrecked whalers who are rescued by a band of Inuit and the resulting culture clash is going to end in tragedy. I knew the conclusion of "The White Dawn" as soon as I read two sentences of it's description on Netflix.
But we shouldn't really hold that against it. Because "The White Dawn" is a very good movie and I am shocked that more movie aficionados haven't heard of it. I never did, and I am a fan of Philip Kaufman and Timothy Bottoms and movies of the 70s, and I have an interest in the arctic. This movie seems to have been buried under a rock somewhere, despite fine performances all around, beautiful cinematography and direction, and fascinating subject matter in the Eskimos.
Filmed on location on Baffin Island in what is now Nunavet, the Inuit territory of Northern Canada, "The White Dawn" portrays the story of the three whalers - Timothy Bottoms, Louis Gossett Jr, and Warren Oates as they live with a sympathetic and friendly Inuit band over the course of a year, and how ultimately the interaction of the two world views leads to tragedy. It is based on the novel of the same name by James Houston, who lived with the Inuit for many years and based his novel on stories handed down through the generations of an actual event of 1897. In a fine performance, Bottoms is sensitive and open to the Eskimo way of life, falling in love with the woman Neevee. On the other hand is arrogant and exploitive Oates, who comes to represent the worst of "civilized" man's attitudes towards the Eskimo. He is dramatically counterbalanced by the equally manipulative Inuit Shaman, who pronounces that the whalers are bringing evil to the band of Eskimos.
While the ending might seem preordained, "The White Dawn" is full of texture as it examines the meeting of cultures. And beyond the story itself, it is full of vivid and powerful images of Eskimo life, presented with apparently absolute realism by the amateur (but very good) Inuit cast. The joys and sorrows of the native's communal life are conveyed as they travel and hunt through the seasons. The highlights of the movie include a seal hunt, later a more desperate walrus hunt, and a winter dance in a large igloo, featuring the strange and wonderful throat chanting of two Inuit girls.
A note for animal lovers - according to the commentary track, while seals and walruses were killed in filming, they were only killed if they would have been killed anyway, and the slain animals were completely utilized for food and fur by the Inuit (who do still hunt and rely on seals). The polar bear used in filming was not injured in any way.
If you are a fan of the cinema of the 70s or movies in general, and are willing to accept the grim nature of the story, I highly recommend "The White Dawn". Certainly it should gain a wider audience and not be forgotten.
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