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White Wilderness

White Wilderness(1958)

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teaser White Wilderness (1958)

Walt Disney launched his "True-Life Adventures," a series of natural history documentaries, in 1948 with the short subject Seal Island. The idea was to provide educational productions in an entertaining format and the films, which Walt Disney's brother and business partner Roy predicted would be commercial flops, were both popular and critical successes. Between 1948 and 1960, Disney released 14 features and short subjects. Eight of them won Academy Awards, three for Best Documentary Feature, five for Best Two Reel Live Action Short.

White Wilderness (1958) was one of the final films released under the "True-Life Adventures" banner, a portrait of the wildlife in the short summers of the Arctic and sub-Arctic wilderness of North America. Photographed over the course of three years in Alaska, Alberta, and Manitoba, it is, in the words of narrator Winston Hibler, "a story of life meeting and conquering the bleakest environment on Earth." The film is filled with images of walrus, polar bears, lemmings, loons, wolves, grizzly bears, and caribou. There are scenes of animal families at rest and play, with an emphasis on the cute shenanigans of pups and cubs, as well as packs on the hunt, migrating herds, and pods of whales in the open waters before the winter freeze. But the films also shows wolves taking down the weakest members of a caribou herd and a ferocious wolverine climbing a tree to prey on an osprey chick while the mother swoops down, raking it with its claws, to attempt to drive it back down. It's a spectacular sequence that shows the violence of the natural world without showing any blood.

White Wilderness is directed and written by James Algar, a former Disney animator and animation director who took charge as the primary writer and director of the True-Life Adventure documentaries, from Seal Island (1948) through Oscar-winning features The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie. Algar made use of a number of nature documentarians to the raw wildlife footage he would shape into the finished film, including Herb and Lois Crisler, who had previously photographed scenes for The Olympic Elk (1952) and The Vanishing Prairie. They were assigned the task of filming the migration of the caribou through the Killik Valley of Alaska's Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain range in North America, and they took up residence in a cabin overlooking the valley to await the herds. During their stay over the Alaskan summer, in which their sole lifeline to the outside world was periodic drops of supplies from a small bush plane, they also photographed foxes, wolves, and grizzly bears, including scenes of animal families with young, playful cubs.

Disney's True-Life Adventure documentaries have been criticized for imposing stories upon the footage and anthropomorphizing the animals on screen, assigning them human attributes and motivations in the narration by Winston Hibler, a Disney writer who became the voice of Disney's non-fiction films. White Wilderness in particular was called out for propagating the myth of the suicidal charge of the lemmings. Though the narration points out that there is no such instinctual drive in the animals, it does suggest that overpopulation drives the animals to migrate and they get confused when meeting the ocean, attempting to cross it as if it is a lake and drowning in the process. There is no such documented behavior among the lemmings and, as discovered by the Canadian investigative series The Fifth Estate, the scenes of the lemmings were staged for the film. Filmmakers imported lemmings to a location in Alberta and drove them off a small makeshift cliff, in some cases literally tossing the little creatures, into a body of water to simulate the leap into the sea. It is unlikely that these filmmakers had the approval or authorization of Walt Disney.

But these documentaries also showed audiences the wonder and beauty of the natural world. They made the case for ecological preservation and conservation and reminded us of the importance of the natural life cycle of the wilds. White Wilderness in particular notes that the reputation of the North American wolves is much maligned and makes note that when the wolves hunt the migrating caribou, they are actually preying upon the weakest of the herd, culling the old and the crippled. They are part of the cycle of life and death in the harsh environment of the white wilderness.

They also proved that educational efforts could be profitable and prestigious. White Wilderness won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature plus a nomination for the musical score by Oliver Wallace, but it was one of the last in the series. The True-Life Adventures ended in 1960 with Jungle Cat but Disney's nature documentaries continued on television on The Wonderful World of Disney and the legacy of the True-Life Adventures was revived in 2007 with the release of Earth, the first film under the banned of Disneynature. A new series of natural history documentaries made for family viewing in the theaters and on home video was born.

By Sean Axmaker

Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, Marc Eliot. Birch Lane Press, 1993.
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler. Knopf, 2006.
"The Crisler Story / Prowlers of the Everglades" episode of Disneyland. Walt Disney Productions, February 27, 1957.
"Cruel Camera" episode of The Fifth Estate. CBC, May 5, 1982.

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