The Savage Innocents (1960, Nicholas Ray)

“The rules have grown stronger than those who made them.”

Bob Dylan’s fabled hero Anthony Quinn is a mexican eskimo (MEXIMO). Eskimo culture in the far north is apparently a whole racial melting pot, with eskimos from Japan and China and Singapore and Guyana, and even white eskimos with skin makeup.

Peter O’Toole, in his first year in the movies, already knew how to behave like a star, insisting his name be stricken from the credits upon learning that he’d been dubbed.

Opens unpleasantly with a swimming polar bear getting speared. Later we’ll see more hurt or killed animals, not always sure which are real. A narrator condescendingly fills us in on eskimo culture: “in the age of the atom bomb they still hunt with bow and arrow … they are so crude they don’t know how to lie.” Then Quinn shows up, a giggling simpleton with a short temper, a strong hunter without a wife. At first he’s too cartoonish, overplaying the cultural differences, but it’s a charismatic film and you get used to the movie version of the eskimo way of life, so that halfway through when guns and white men first appear, it’s startling. And then the movie gets to its point, or at least what I assume Ray felt was its point since he loves to hide bunches of social commentary in his action-packed dramas, which is best represented by Quinn’s great line: “When you come to a strange land, you should bring your wives and not your laws.”

Narrator plays it like a Nanook educational film at times. Quinn has a friendly fight with a buddy, smashing his head through an igloo wall, but while returning home after an uncomfortable encounter with modern civilization (guns and swing music) he busts the skull of a white missionary because he refuses to eat their old wormy marrow. “One did not intend to kill … his head was too soft.” Peter O’Toole and some guy who freezes to death after falling into water chase Quinn, arresting him for the murder, but finally O’Toole lets Quinn go, using exactly the same method as John Lithgow did in Harry and the Hendersons.

Hits from the DVD commentary by Krohn and Ehrenstein:
Technically an Italian movie (hence the dubbing). Opens with plain white nothingness, a little bit of Antonioni creeping into Ray’s work already. “Swingin’ and swappin’ in the great white north.” Ray was in the arctic for a long time getting all these shots. Released in 70mm. Marie Yang plays the mother of Quinn’s bride, is not Anna May Wong as frequently miscredited, but another actress calling herself Anna May Wong (not the famous one) also appears. Refusing to sleep with someone’s wife can get you killed, just as [sleeping with someone’s wife] can here. All of ray’s movies are about “the impossibility of communication.” Quinn is a rare Ray hero who is not neurotic. Ray’s trademark anguish is missing. The Four Saints song “Don’t Be an Iceberg” plus second song “Sexy Rock” heard in the distance then over closing credits, because movies had to have theme songs back then. And Krohn recommends the John Landis movie The Stupids.

This post has been released under the Movie Journal Amnesty Act of March 2011, which states that blog entries may be posted in an unfinished state, since I am too busy to write them up properly.

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