The White Dawn (1974)
“These people are living with savages.”
That line is very prophetic but might not be the way you envision it in the context of this captivating film made on Baffin Island, Canada.
The story begins in 1896 when a trio of whalers are separated from their ship and believed lost in the cold frigid waters. Finding land the three men are near deaths door when they are discovered by a tribe of Eskimos. The natives take in the sailors and nurse them back to health which leads to a clash of cultures as the men begin to corrupt the Eskimos and their way of life.
The film stars a trio of professional actors and a group billed as The Eskimo People of the Canadian Arctic. Warren Oates, Lou Gossett and Timothy Bottoms are playing the stranded whalers who come to be known as Dog Men among the Eskimos. Each character has a way of interacting with the natives that will play a major part in the film. Oates is the untrustworthy sailor. He’s greedy and thinks nothing of taking advantage of the tribe. From personal possessions to their women, he’ll have it all. Gossett is unsure of the tribe but is willing to go along with them and play it smart biding his time to return to the ships and the islands. Bottoms welcomes the lifestyle and is genuinely interested in both learning the new culture and sharing his with them. He’s embracing his new life with a gentleness and playfulness that endears him to both a young hunter and an Eskimo woman who he becomes involved with.
When the local Shaman tries to warn the tribe that the Dog Men will bring evil the tone is set for what will eventually come. Oates slowly begins to go stir crazy and his fun and games amount to nothing more than cruel jokes and pleasures aimed against the peaceful people who have taken him in. Eventually the elders will begin to see the men for what they are and the corruption they bring. It’s the Shaman who elicits the opening quote above.
The word unique is the perfect word to describe this film from director Philip Kaufman. It stars a trio of well known faces at the time with a cast of Eskimos with no prior acting experience who during the course of the film speak their own language with subtitles shown for our benefit. The fact that it’s filmed on location in a cold and harsh environment only adds to the authenticity of the film and what the filmmakers are trying to convey.
At times the film has a documentary style as seen through the eyes of the young character that is played by Bottoms. Kaufman and scriptwriter James Houston have done well in allowing the Eskimos plenty of screen time to get this across. It should also be noted that this cast of amateurs never seem to be acting and convey a naturalness on screen that meshes perfectly with our trio of pros.
Screenwriter Houston actually wrote the novel that the film is based on. It’s supposedly based on actual events. Thus a “true story”.
I first saw this film in the early days of the VHS tape and it has always remained in my thoughts, surfacing every now and then. Revisiting this on DVD has been a pleasure. My interest was originally Warren Oates. I was and still am drawn to his characters in both film and the early television appearances he would make in various genres. Various genres are actually something Warren seemed to fit into quite easily. We know him of course because of his association with Sam Peckinpah but here he’s a crusty old whaler. Looking thru a list of his credits one can easily see he had a varied list of titles and themes.
I probably saw this around the time Gossett was winning his Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman, so his name on the credits was an added bonus.
The theme of the film is solid and in today’s world can hold lessons for us all. This is a title that I highly recommend for both it’s casting of all the actors and the messages that lay within. A top notch film that I can proudly say was filmed in the far north of my home country. Kudos to the filmmakers on this one.