The Chosen Frozen People

Never thought I’d live to see it, but Nicholas Ray’s masterful 1959 Arctic classic THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS has at last made it to American Blu-Ray, and, thanks to the wonderful tribe at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment, in the best rendition possible!

Based on a book by Hans Ruesch (whose background knowledge admittedly was limited to being awed by W.S. Van Dyke’s 1933 MGM semi-documentary Eskimo), Top of the World was adapted for the screen by the author, Franco Solinas, Baccio Bandini and Ray (who gets solo credit in the American prints).  Nick was always enthralled by people surviving in oft treacherous environs (On Dangerous Ground, Bitter Victory, Wind Across the Everglades); this was appended by his fascination with various cultures, having begun his professional career recording folk songs in Appalachia for the WPA.  The Eskimos, residing in their primitive, often frightening, regions of the frigid North, were a logical expansion of both of these interests, and thereby, the ideal Nicholas Ray vehicle.  The greenlight for this Italian-French-British coproduction seemed to captivate a plethora of outstanding artists, resulting in a number amazing folks in front of and behind the cameras.  Key among the crew is cinematographer Aldo Tonti, composer Angelo Lavagnino, and handfuls of technicians whose names have graced some of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

The story of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is in its name.  I mean, for once, the title of the movie promises what it delivers, in spades.  The characters of the Eskimo clans are like schizo grown-up children – playful and loving one minute and violently brutal (usually due to their being insulted) the next.  “Eskimo,” we are told by the stolid narrator is roughly translated as “eater of flesh.”  They are, he continues, an ancient race living in the era of “the atomic bomb.”

But the “savage innocent” is more than descriptive; it’s a warning.  If you’re faint of heart, you probably might want to reconsider watching this paradoxical, gorgeously photographed epic, as it contains scenes of graphic animal slaughter (not for gain, but for food and survival); Ray shot footage of Eskimo hunts that are incorporated into the narrative, so seal, polar bear, sea lion and walrus aficionados beware.  It ain’t a pretty sight.

The star of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is Anthony Quinn, perhaps his most perfectly cast role alongside Zorba.  As Inuk, he is a happy-go-lucky, wide-eyed, passionate person, out to snare a woman of his own when not killing to live.

The roles of women in this society are sickeningly similar to many more “civilized” nations.  Females are desirable sex objects, highly regarded as trade items, and to be freely shared.  The difference is that they also become total partners to their males, and willingly will cheer up lonely singles by what the movie refers to as “laughing” with them.

Truly, Nick was proud of that, and he told me that he had hoped that he would kick the censors in the ass by having the word “laughing” banned in several countries, as it was so obvious that it meant “fucking.”  But the movie was not a huge success in major markets outside of Italy, and, then severely cut (an all-female mating dance is quite daring, as are shots of a nude Eskimo woman snuggling up against her lover – of course, all removed in the U.S. version).

The plight of the Eskimos in the Atomic/Space Age becomes less anachronistic as Quinn/Inuk discovers the joys of firearms.  He travels with his new wife, Asiak (Yoko Tani), and mother-in-law (Marie Yang) to the white settlement and barters for modern weaponry – for the first time agreeing to kill for material gain.  Of course, Inuk is rooked, as the many wolf skins required for the cherished rifle don’t cover the cost of ammunition.  This dangerous theme successfully intertwines Ray’s philosophy regarding corruption of the pure with Sirkian cinematic economics at its most volatile.

The only thing possibly worse than Inuk’s capitalistic downward spiral would be the introduction of western religion. Oops.  Before you can utter one “Hail, Mary,” a fanatical priest (Marco Guglielmi), repulsed by Inuk’s offer to cheer him up by laughing with Asiak, goes ballistic (“A wife is the most beautiful possession a man can have!,” the missionary shrieks to the unnerved couple) causing a terrified Inuk and Asiak to respond the only way they know how:  by bashing the crazed cleric’s head into pulp against an igloo wall.

Now wanted for murder, Inuk and Asiak retreat to their wilderness sanctuary, protected by the elements from the police officials sent on a perilous and likely futile manhunt.

Concurrent is the birth of Inuk’s and Asiak’s son, another savage scene that nearly ends in tragedy.  Noticing the newborn is toothless, the parents ponder the fact that it might be punishment for their deeds.  They almost leave the infant out on an ice drift to die, but other events crisscross and change the couple’s plans (they previously did the same to Asiak’s ailing mother, who agreed to be abandoned to certain death rather than be a burden).

Aside from Quinn, the star of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is the hauntingly beautiful terrain.  In spectacular Technicolor and Technirama, the landscapes are like something out of an alien world, except this isn’t fabricated Hollywood set design – it’s the real deal (the bulk of the movie was filmed in Greenland, Hudson’s Bay, Baffin Island).  It’s simultaneously jaw-dropping and, in its vastness, terrifying.

The human costars, comprising, as indicated, an international array of thespians (from the UK, Italy, France, China and Japan), notably include one of my first crushes, Tani, an unscrupulous Francis De Wolff (dubbed with a spaghetti western yank voice, and with his trademark beard dyed red), Anthony Chin, Michael Chow, Anna May Wong (no, not that one) and Peter O’Toole (yes, that one) as one of Inuk’s trackers.

The O’Toole situation with THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is worth discussing at length, as it fully illustrates the movie’s “curse,” which appears to have plagued the title up until the Olive release.

O’Toole, then just coming into his own (he was suggested to Ray by the director’s wife, Betty Utey), was offered the juicy role as the relentless hunter who eventually comes to understand the age-old ideology that rule Inuk and Asiak (in Eskimo terms, stressed out law-enslaved white people are “stupid”).

O’Toole, not surprisingly, is excellent in the part, and happily returned to the UK after the grueling location shooting to begin work on a play in the West End.  Ray related to me that several months later, the producers contacted to give him the dates set for dubbing (as you may or may not know, in Italy, all movies, even though shot in synch sound, are post-dubbed).  O’Toole noted the time on his calendar.  When he failed to show up, the irate suits telephoned him to ask where the hell he was.  O’Toole honestly replied that he never received his plane fare to Italy.  This set the producers into a greater rage, screaming over the wire that he had been paid up front, and his actor’s salary covered everything.  O’Toole told them to politely fuck off, causing the moguls to sneer that they didn’t need him, and that they’ll get some American voice actor to do it.  O’Toole countered with, “If you do, you’d better take my name off your damn picture.”  The producers readily agreed, adding that “no gives a shit about you anyway!”  Famous last words.  O’Toole’s name was nowhere in the credits or ads.

Flash forward a year later.  O’Toole is now starring in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, arguably the biggest movie in production throughout the world.  To quote the actor, it “made me.”  He is now an instant international superstar.  The skeevy producers sneakily pull a coup:  they re-release THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS in Italy with a poster featuring Quinn and O’Toole face to face, under the tagline:  “The Stars of Lawrence of Arabia Together Again for the BIGGEST Adventure of Them All!”  O’Toole either shrugged it off at this point, or, perhaps was totally unaware of this insidious maneuver.  In any event, it just was one of the dark, crazy-ass fates of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS.

For Quinn, Inuk, as far as I’m concerned, is the role he was born to play.  The influence of this movie among Boomers and subsequent industry players is infinite.  You’ll see bits from THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS surface in almost every movie genre/franchise since its release, from James Bond to Dirty Harry to Star Wars.  Perhaps the ultimate homage was by Bob Dylan, who lionized this movie with his immortal tribute The Mighty Quinn.  It was the one post-SAVAGE INNOCENTS perk that Ray was extremely proud of.

Here in the states, Paramount cut the movie by over twenty minutes, and dumped it directly into the nabes as an action picture.  Nick told me in the mid-1970s that the movie, in Europe, was shown in 70MM.  I doubted it at the time (not realizing the versions I’d seen were heavily edited), but ultimately discovered he was correct, and, since Technirama is basically anamorphic VistaVision, Super Technirama 70 blowups allowed for that kind of 35 x 2 wiggle room upgrade without much loss (if any) of quality.  In 70MM, THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS truly must have been an outstanding experience; the proof’s in the pudding, or rather the Blu-Ray, as this breathtaking Olive Films platter will knock your socks off.

Since 1960, the various editions of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS veered from the aforementioned American cut to hybrid versions of 100-103 minutes.  In the early 2000s, the UK Masters of Cinema Series, released an anamorphic DVD that clocked in at 109 minutes, the most complete length ever.  It quickly went out of print, as a new scumbag producer claimed he owned the video rights.  Insult to injury, he released the U.S. butchered SAVAGE INNOCENTS – in PAN AND SCAN!  If ever there was a .99 bin crap special, this was it.

Long story short, cineastes owe Olive a big one, as this stunning Blu-Ray is the absolute uncut 110-minute version, in near-flawless 1080p High Definition 2.35:1 widescreen.  When you’re through jumping for joy, migrate to your Blu-Ray dealer and grab a copy (hopefully accepting cash/plastic in lieu of pelts).  As indicated earlier, THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS may not be for everyone, but (and I can’t help repeating myself) it is a magnificent cultural odyssey, and, for fans of the director, one of Nicholas Ray’s seminal works.

THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS. Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HA MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF1349.  SRP:  29.95.

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