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In the Canadian Arctic, a proud Eskimo hunter known as Mala travels over 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 the Eskimos.
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 Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932), the first in a long line of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations starring Johnny Weissmuller.
In 1932, 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 many books on Eskimo culture 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 Eskimos 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 Eskimos 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. 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 moving and the film has a classic structure not unlike the great stage tragedies of Shakespeare. Despite favorable reviews, Eskimo was overlooked at Oscar time, except in one category - Best Film Editing - for which it won an Academy Award.
Producers: Hunt Stromberg, W.S. Van Dyke
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin based on the novels of Peter Freuchen
Cinematography: Clyde De Vinna, George Gordon Nogle, Josiah Roberts, Leonard Smith
Film Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Original Music: William Axt
Cast: Edgar Dearing (Constable Balk), Mala (Mala), Lotus Long (Iva), Edward Hearn (Captain's Mate), Joe Sawyer (Sergeant Hunt), W.S. Van Dyke (Inspector White), Peter Freuchen (Captain).
BW-114m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford