The original Quinn the Eskimo (no kidding) is another life-loving rough portrait from Anthony Quinn, in Nicholas Ray’s rather successful final spin as a writer-director. Despite some technical awkwardness, Ray’s sensitivity to outsider souls finds full expression. Humans don’t get any more ‘outside’ than Inuk, a primitive unequipped to deal with the modern world.
The Savage Innocents
1960 / Color / 2:35 widescreen (Super Technirama 70) / 110 min. / Street Date June 27, 2017 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Yoko Tani, Carlo Giustini, Peter O’Toole, Marie Yang, Marco Guglielmi, Anthony Chinn, Francis De Wolff.
Cinematography: Peter Hennessey, Aldo Tonti
Film Editor: Eraldo Da Roma, Ralph Kemplen
Original Music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
Written by Nicholas Ray, adapted by Franco Solinas, Baccio Bandini, Hans Ruesch from his novel
Produced by Maleno Malenotti
Directed by Nicholas Ray
It’s arguable that Nicholas Ray’s career began to fall apart as early as his Bigger than Life, a fine picture that he nevertheless didn’t feel he brought off the way he wanted. The True Story of Jesse James and Party Girl have their good scenes, but Ray considered them compromised studio hack work. Bitter Victory is celebrated by some critics, yet seems a confused picture with impossible casting decisions. And Wind Across the Everglades, despite being an original and worthy idea, showed the great director all but unable to function, with much of the picture shot by other people. Considered an erratic loner with serious personal problems, Ray was becoming less welcome in Hollywood.
Yet he bounced back strong with The Savage Innocents, his second picture in a row with a back-to-nature theme. The multinational European production allowed Ray to film his own script with little interference, with an impressive array of production and technical expertise at his disposal. Distributor Paramount was shooting pictures in the hybrid Technirama format, which was essentially sideways VistaVision given a slight squeeze; you’ll notice that some light scratches on the film run sideways instead of up and down. Ray scouted locations in the Arctic but perhaps sensed that he wasn’t in physical shape to direct a movie in such harsh conditions. So second units shot beautiful location work to Ray’s order. The actors went north for a few scenes but most of the dialogue material was filmed in England. Not as noticeable then but very obvious now are traveling matte shots that combine stage work with plates filmed in the Arctic. . . they announce themselves rather strongly.
Ray’s sensitive adaptation (of a book by a man who never lived in the Arctic) has the elegiac feel of a world nearing extinction. Most of the animals we see had to be filmed on sound stages, as even in 1959 the scouting party saw next to nothing alive anywhere that a reasonable excursion could take them. Also, Ray made his film decades before Indigenous Peoples’ Rights became an established issue. I once did research for a film, and the particular people interviewed hated the word Eskimo, and preferred Inuit. Ray shows uncommon sensitivity toward them, but his vision of events might not be interpreted as PC.
Hearty hunter Inuk (Anthony Quinn) is as crude and primitive as a native can be. He has no written language and his tribal customs are codified in ways that are partly savage — women have zero rights – but also curiously gentle and polite. The Eskimos refer to themselves in the third person when expressing their needs. Although a friend offers to ‘lend’ Inuk his wife to ‘laugh’ with (i.e., have sex), Inuk wants a woman of his own. Two eligible prospects pass through, and the rival hunter Kiddok (Anthony Chinn) claims one sister, Imina (Kaida Horiuchi). The near-infantile Inuk doesn’t like not having first choice. A sled chase ensues, but in the end Inuk changes his mind and stays with the other sister, Asiak (Yoko Tani). She comes with her mother as well. Trouble begins the moment Inuk encounters civilization. Another Eskimo beats him to the kill of a polar bear because he has a rifle. Inuk is so enthused at the idea of owning a rifle that he suffers for months hunting foxes to be able to purchase one at a distant trading post. There Inuk is considered a freak; the head trader (Francis De Wolff) notes that unspoiled Eskimos are becoming rare. Then a missionary (Marco Gugliemi) tries to introduce Inuk and Asiak to God and original sin, a bad move. Inuk becomes angry when the missionary rebuffs Inuk’s offer to laugh with Asiak, and tragedy ensues. Much later, a pair of Mounties (Carlo Gustini and Peter O’Toole) makes its way to the remote ice shore, to arrest Inuk for murder.
At first The Savage Innocents seems entirely awkward, with its mix of real locations, fake sets and stilted dialogue, all spoken clearly in pidgin-like English. Most (all?) of the Eskimos we see appear to be cast with Japanese and Chinese actors, a choice that works for this Anglo viewer. The sincerity of Ray’s approach and his interest in the subject quickly win us over. He doesn’t make excuses for Inuk’s brutal methods of hunting — seals, walruses, and polar bears haven’t a chance. One method of disabling a polar bear would be unconscionably cruel, were it not for the fact that Inuk is fighting for survival just like the other animals on the ice. Just living seems all but impossible in this world, and the Eskimos live directly off the (then) teeming populations of wild animals. Much of the hunting must be done on the water, and anybody who falls in the water does not have a great chance for survival. Like North American Indians, the Eskimos have rituals in which they stress a co-dependent relationship with the animals, not an adversarial one.
Some audiences in 1960 must have been disgusted by a scene in The Savage Innocents. The Eskimos are seen sloppily eating shreds of raw meat, exhibiting their happiness to each other with their mouths open. Modern animal activists might not accept scenes of animals being killed, faked or not. It looks as if a bear is speared in the open water, but most of the other animal killings are faked back on the sound stage.
Inuk has a big ego and a bad habit of acting on impulse. He doesn’t think things out — he’s willing to kill the amiable Kiddok to get Imina back, even though it will make him a pariah in the scattered Eskimo community. As soon as he sees the hunter Ittimargnek’s rifle, Inuk goes nuts, almost shooting Asiak by dumb accident. He’s incapable of understanding the white man’s world at the trading station, where people play rock ‘n’ roll and barter for advantage. The trading post owner is quick to tell Inuk that no nudity or wife lending is allowed in his establishment. When the troopers arrest him, Inuk cannot comprehend why they insist that his explanations for the killing won’t save him from the gallows. Although he can’t openly advise Inuk to resist, the trooper played by Peter O’Toole doesn’t want to see him die, and ends up doing everything he can to get Inuk to rebel against his authority. He ends up having to hurl abuse at the Eskimo, to make him stay away from the white man’s trading post. The Savage Innocents is a simple story of cultural incompatibility. The only peace for Inuk will be to live out his days the old way. ‘Civilization’ is just as inflexible, and won’t permit the savage ways to continue.
To our surprise, Anthony Quinn applies himself seriously to the role, and doesn’t try to make Inuk into yet another meaningful martyr. Inuk is not a proto- Zorba projecting an earthy life force in all directions. Inuk is in a lot of ways as dumb as blubber, but he’s a champion hunter and survival expert. He also has an innate sense of fair play — he may bash people around for the wrong reasons, but he refuses to abandon the Mountie to the ice, even though the man is threatening him with death.
Ray obtains moving, stylized performances. Asiak and the other Eskimos behave like giggling children, even the grandmother who no longer has teeth. Yoko Tani (The Silent Star) has a perky personality with few assertive moments; some viewers may not accept the way she enthusiastically defers to everything Inuk wants, including sex. Her mother Powtee is played by non-actor Marie Yang. A natural performer, Yang aces the best scene in the movie. Before she abandons herself to death on the ice, grandma Powtee gives Asiak basic instructions about delivering a baby. Apparently the women must to do this alone, so there’s no reason for Powtee to stay around, as another mouth to feed. By custom the first baby must be a boy, so if Asiak has a girl it must be left to die. The passing-on of vital information is so thin, neither Inuk nor Asiak are aware that new babies don’t have teeth.
Anthony Chinn became a familiar face in English films, appearing in several James Bond shows. Enlisted from the stage, Peter O’Toole is very good as the Mountie that wants to do right by Inuk. But the producers re-dubbed O’Toole with a generic Canadian accent, obliterating much of his performance. He successfully had his name removed from the British credits. It didn’t hurt O’Toole’s career; after just a small part in Disney’s Kidnapped and a supporting turn in the caper picture The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, he proceeded directly to his real debut in a gigantic David Lean epic.
Bernard Eisenschitz’s book Nicholas Ray An American Journey has a fine chapter on The Savage Innocents that explains that its identity as an Italian film required extra Italian credits; for instance, in Italy the second unit director received co-director credit. Eisenschitz says that the famed Franco Solinas also made no contribution to the film, and that he is credited as co-screenwriter solely for contractual necessity. Although I can’t believe that arctic natives would approve of the movie now, Eisenschitz says that in 1960 the only objection was to Anthony Quinn’s size — he’s much bigger than any Eskimo of the day.
Whether involving himself with crooks, socialites, cops or rodeo riders, Nicholas Ray always went far beyond the superficial, demonstrating an understanding of human dynamics often untouched in Hollywood productions. The Savage Innocents doesn’t shy away from some fairly raw subject matter – the animal slayings, the loose tribal attitude toward sex. Although he did not write it, the strongest dialogue line in The Savage Innocents is a keeper:
“When you come to a strange land, you should bring your wives, and not your laws.”
Viewers tend to remember another, much earlier line spoken by Inuk, on the subject of polar-region wife swapping:
“You lend your sled, it comes back cracked. You lend your knife, it comes back dull. You lend your dogs, they come back tired and crawling. But if you love your wife, no matter how often you lend her, she always comes back like new.”
I think I always knew it intuitively, but Bob Dylan’s song The Mighty Quinn about Quinn the Eskimo, was indeed inspired by this show. Manfred Mann’s pop single version is immortal, in my book. Maybe Dylan was also impressed by Quinn’s awful table manners.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of The Savage Innocents is a very good encoding of this large-format 1960 feature. Despite being blown up to Super Technirama 70, it wasn’t given the widest release by Paramount. The excellent transfer makes the arctic vistas look wonderful, but it also shows up the optical effects that would now be considered substandard. Sodium vapor matte work puts green fringes around elements of many scenes. In a land where little green exists, the matte lines can’t be missed against white snow. Yet everything looks attractive, and we can appreciate the added resolution of the big-format Technirama every time Ray cuts to the impressive location footage. A few shots up front show odd density fluctuation, but the problem goes away in a few seconds.
The eerie, effective music score by the prolific Angelo Francesco Lavagnino has a few cues that sound similar to his music for Gorgo (1961). The recording sounds thin and tinny though, like the original Dimitri Tiomkin score for John Huston’s The Unforgiven from the same year. I think it has something to do with a particular recording studio in Italy.
The Savage Innocents
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 26, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson