How many famous or highly regarded films about the Inuit culture can you name? Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) is probably at the top of the list but what else? The 1955 Oscar-nominated documentary Where Mountains Float, Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents (1960), Zacharias Kunuk’s 2001 epic, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), and Mike Magidson’s Inuk (2010) are all impressive achievements which need to be better known. But one of the most moving and evocative films is from 1933 entitled Eskimo, a word which is now an outdated and offensive reference to the Inuit and Yupik tribes who populate the Arctic Circle and northern bordering regions.
The fact that it was directed by MGM veteran W.S. Van Dyke – who helmed more than 85 features in his 25-year career hence the nickname “One Take Woody” – seems unlikely on first impressions. Van Dyke is best known for such commercial, audience-pleasing films as Manhattan Melodrama (1934), The Thin Man (1934) and San Francisco (1936) but Eskimo reflects aspects of the director’s skill at depicting exotic cultures from earlier films (The Pagan, The Cuban Love Song) and is a much more successful merger of ethnographic documentation and dramatic narrative. Here is a brief synopsis:
In the Canadian Arctic, a proud Inuit hunter known as Mala travels more than 500 miles across the frozen tundra with his wife and family. Their destination is Tjarnak where Mala plans to trade furs for man-made necessities with the captain of a whaling expedition. Eventually they reach the white man’s outpost where Mala conducts a successful trade, but the ship’s captain proves to be a treacherous character who brings nothing but misfortune, shame and tragedy to Mala and his people. W. S. Van Dyke made a name for himself at MGM in the late twenties as a director whose forte was making dramatic adventure stories enhanced by exotic documentary footage using real locations and local natives. His 1929 feature, White Shadows in the South Seas, enjoyed considerable controversy at the time because the original director, documentarian Robert Flaherty, was fired midway through production after constantly clashing with studio executives over the film’s original intent. Van Dyke stepped in to complete the film, transforming Flaherty’s ethnographic study of the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific into a scenic melodrama about a alcoholic doctor (Monte Blue) and his love for a native girl (Raquel Torres).
Despite the on-location production problems on White Shadows in the South Seas, Van Dyke headed back to the South Seas to film The Pagan with Ramon Novarro in 1929. Then, in 1930, the director traveled with a cast and crew to Africa to shoot Trader Horn (1931) which was also plagued by bad luck and accidents; the sound equipment truck became submerged in a river, the female lead, Edwina Booth, fell ill in the tropical heat, and Harry Carey, the hero of the film, almost lost his leg to a crocodile. Van Dyke was later able to recycle some of his African jungle footage for his 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man, the first in a long line of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations starring Johnny Weissmuller. Later that same year Van Dyke set out to make Eskimo (1933), hyped by MGM as his most ambitious project to date. It was no less arduous to film than his previous expeditions to some of the world’s most remote locales. Taking a camera crew to the northern tip of Alaska, Van Dyke arrived at his shooting location during the winter of 1932-33. Weather conditions were harsh and Van Dyke’s ship was soon rendered immobile by the heavy ice. Luckily, their guide, Peter Freuchen (his two books on Eskimo culture – Storfanger (1927) and Die Flucht ins weisse Land (1929) – served as the basis for John Lee Mahin’s screenplay), helped the crew deal with the local natives and capture some stunning landscapes and hunting footage involving walrus, caribou and a polar bear.
At times Eskimo resembles a documentary with its remarkable scenes of salmon spear fishing or husky sled-teams traveling across the ice. Also adding a sense of authenticity was Van Dyke’s insistence on having all of the Inuit speak in their own dialect, which is often translated on-screen via subtitles or a narrator.
Eskimo does not open with standard movie credits. Instead, it has an introduction stating that no actors were used in the film (except for the roles of the white traders and the Royal Mounted Canadian Police). Despite Van Dyke’s claim that all of the Inuit were played by tribal people from the Arctic region, Mala and Lotus Long, cast respectively as Mala and Iva (one of Mala’s wives in the film), were actually professional actors. Mala, in fact, would go on to enjoy a successful Hollywood career, playing variations on his innocent native in Last of the Pagans (1935), Call of the Yukon (1938), and The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942).
Unfortunately, Eskimo was not a success at the box office. Perhaps moviegoers at the time didn’t have the same curiosity about the Arctic that they did about the Pacific Rim or Africa but most likely it was the depressing storyline that discouraged ticket buyers. Still, it garnered positive reviews from most critics. A typical example is this excerpt from Mordant Hall’s review in The New York Times: “It is a remarkable film, one that often awakens wonder as to how the camera men were able to photograph some of the scenes and record the impressive sounds. The acting of the Eskimos, or their ability to do what was asked of them by the director, is really extraordinary.” The film also won an Oscar for Best Film Editing.
Though it occasionally veers off into melodramatic excess, Eskimo is an often powerful indictment of white civilization and its destructive impact on indigenous cultures. Mala’s performance as the victimized main character is genuinely heartrending and the film has a classic structure not unlike the great stage tragedies of Shakespeare. Because it was filmed prior to the enforcement of the Production Code, there is also some surprising sexual content such as the scene where Mala offers his wife (with her consent) to his white friend for the night. It is handled in a matter-of-fact, unsensationalized manner with no moralizing. More objectionable to contemporary viewers might be the footage of animal slaughter including walrus, birds and whales. It was simply a way of life and survival for the Inuit and trappers but could be viewed as the early beginnings of the whole Mondo Cane shockumentary movement.
Eskimo was unavailable on any format in recent years until Warner Archive Collection released it as a DVD-R in July 2015.
* This is a revised and expanded version of the original article that first appeared on tcm.com
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Imagine an Inuit/Yupik view of 1930’s movie making. With complete subtitles, I imagine that a “Dramedy” could be made from this “Hollywood meets Alaska native culture” tale. What and how the Hollywood crew interacts with their extras and actors could have a “Little Big Man” feel. How would this kind of a movie play in these fractious times? It could be more like “White Dawn,” I imagine.