Saturday, March 27, 2021

#2,544. The Savage Innocents (1960) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


I have rarely been as conflicted sitting down to write a review as I am right now. There are elements of Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents that are stunningly beautiful, and others that - viewed through a modern lens – could be downright offensive.

I will do my best to balance the two, to do the film justice while also letting any potential viewers know what they’re in for, and it’s a damn tricky tightrope to walk.

But here goes.

The last true Nicholas Ray film (he also penned the screenplay), The Savage Innocents is set in the remote arctic wilderness, and stars Anthony Quinn as Inuk, a member of a community of Inuits that have had little to no dealings with the outside world.

We follow Inuk on his adventures: fishing, hunting walruses and polar bears, and doing his best to stay alive in the extreme cold. He eventually marries Asiak (Yoko Tani), who proves to be as strong-willed as Inuk,

After making themselves known to the local whites (by trading a hundred fox pelts for a new rifle), Inuk and Asiak are visited by a Christian missionary (Marco Guglielmi), who Inuk accidentally kills (the missionary inadvertently insulted Inuk by refusing his “generous” offer to sleep with Asiak). Though he carries on with life as usual, the killing of the missionary doesn’t go unnoticed, and before long two policemen (Carlo Giustini and a very young Peter O’Toole) track Inuk down and arrest him for murder.

Quinn delivers a grand performance as Inuk, and Yoko Tani is also exceptional as his dutiful yet stubborn wife (the scene where Ariak gives birth wile completely alone in their igloo is quite powerful). As previously mentioned, The Savage Innocents also marked an early appearance by Peter O’Toole, in what would be his second big-screen role; and the sequences shot in the wilds of Canada and Greenland - as well as the film’s extraordinary score (composed by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino) - do their part to bring an almost mystical quality to the arctic setting.

Alas, as I alluded to above, The Savage Innocents has its issues as well. The casting of Quinn as an Inuit – right down to the makeup used to alter his eyes – may rub a few modern viewers the wrong way (though I stand by my initial assertion that his performance was strong. He gives the character a warmth and dignity that is palpable). More upsetting is the way women are treated as objects and possessions (even if this is based on actual Inuit customs, it’s still uncomfortable to watch). Aside from the scene with the Missionary, there’s an early sequence in which Inuk angers his friend Kiddok (Anthony Chinn) by refusing to “laugh” with Kiddok’s wife when she’s offered to him (the term “laughing” is used throughout the movie as a thinly-veiled metaphor for sex).

And while I certainly enjoyed seeing O’Toole in an early role (he is, after all, one of my favorite actors), his entire performance was dubbed! Yes, that’s right, folks… Peter O’Toole was dubbed by an American. Do you know how weird it is to see Peter O’Toole but not hear him?

It’s more troublesome issues aside, The Savage Innocents is a very well-made film. I’m glad I saw it, and because of the skill that went into it’s making (and the compassionate portrayal of the Inuits, who are much more sympathetic than any of the film’s so-called “civilized” characters), I recommend it.

But just know there will be moments when the movie will have you squirming uncomfortably in your seat. I know it occasionally had that effect on me.
Rating: 7 out of 10

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