Monday, April 22, 2013

Eskimo (1933)

Like director W.S. Van Dyke's earlier White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and Trader Horn (1931), Eskimo was another ambitious, expensive adventure filmed in a then-exotic local (Alaska) and again used many natives, this time Inuits speaking in their own tongue. The film also incorporates some amazing documentary footage of hunts for caribou, walrus and whales.

The film tells the story of Mala (played by Ray Wise, later Ray Mala), his family life, the daily fight for survival and his tragic dealings with the encroaching white culture. Though the movie threatens at times to sink under the weight of melodrama, and though the action sequences are riddled with ludicrous rear projection shots, the story is completely engaging. Its nearly two-hour running length goes by quickly.

I'll forgo the plot details and allow the film to surprise new viewers. Eskimo deals frankly with race relations (the most malicious character in the film is European) and the sexual mores of the Inuit (the film was tellingly distributed under the title Eskimo Wife-Traders). This is also definitely not a movie in which one can say no animals were harmed during the making. A ferocious fight to the death between a human and a wolf ends with the wolf getting its head smashed in with a rock! I was surprised at Turner Classic Movies' "G" rating for this one.

Director W.S. Van Dyke plays a Canadian official, while Peter Freuchen, who wrote the two books Eskimo was loosely based on, plays the aforementioned evil ship captain. Eskimo begins with a title card claiming that the only actors were those playing the Canadian parts, but that's untrue. Ray Wise was a cameraman and actor and the three female leads were Asian actors.

Eskimo hasn't been released on DVD.