Cast & Crew
In the Northern Hemisphere, many characteristics of the Ice Age still remain. Despite the harshness of the environment, life continues to flourish. During the spring, the bleak, snowy lands begin to thaw, causing avalanches and vast rivers of running water that batter against the glaciers. Hectic animal activity begins in an effort to gather as much food as possible before the next cold season arrives. The walruses appear in the Arctic Sea, huge mammals with fins, blubber-filled bodies and tusks. These warm-blooded animals swim in frigid waters but prefer sun-baked rocks, where they lay en masse. They live on shellfish, posing little threat to other wildlife, but are themselves hunted by the polar bear, the approach of which can terrify a whole herd into retreat. The great white bear reigns as the most powerful carnivore in the area. Although it does not hibernate, the female goes into a dormant phase when pregnant. The film shows two new cubs, which nurse without waking their mother, then explore the terrain on their own. This intelligent, playful species can be quite mischievous, as when one older cub forms a snowball and pushes it off a hill onto his brother. The ring seal pups have a white coat that serves as camouflage, but when they need to move on land, they are awkward, slow-moving targets, dragging themselves back to the sea. Once in the water, they are a master of the defensive maneuver, swimming expertly. White beluga whales, actually a member of the dolphin family, also appear in the sea, swimming in near-formation. One of the smallest Arctic creatures is the lemming, the female of which must hunt even in the freezing winter to find enough food for her brood. A type of mouse, the lemming lives underground in the winter and moves aboveground after the thaw, when thousands of the species roam the tundra, eating all the vegetation. Every seven to ten years, when they have exhausted the area vegetation, the lemmings follow an extraordinary instinct to commit mass suicide, jumping into the ocean en masse and then dying of exhaustion. Scientists hypothesize that this behavior is an innate method of population control; the few surviving lemmings gradually repopulate the area. Among the spring visitors are the waterfowl, who migrate to the area to raise their young undisturbed. The eiderduck, turnstone, phalarope and gulls hunt in distinct ways and nest on the flat ground, leaving them vulnerable to predators such as polar bears and ermines. The ermine, a type of weasel, is small but bloodthirsty and determined. Goldeneye ducks, unlike the rest of their species, nest in hollow trees. The babies must leave the nest before they can fly, and so follow their mother's example and fall headlong to the ground. One family escapes unscathed and rushes to the relative safety of the water. The tundra serves as grassland for the musk ox, which has survived since the Ice Age due to its long hair, extreme strength and dangerous horns. When a wolf appears, the ox herd forms a protective circle around its cows and calves, with the males facing outward from the circle, forcing the wolf to retreat. Despite its bad reputation, the wolf is actually a useful, monogamous family animal, which has been driven out of much of its homeland by humans. They display the same loyal tendencies as their canine brethren, mating for life and treating their young with great care. One family hunts caribou by waiting patiently until the herd is forced to travel through a narrow mountain pass. The wolves then kill the weakest caribou, thinning the herd of its unfit members. The only animal that scares a wolf is the wolverine, a combination of bear, raccoon and weasel. This vicious, voracious hunter is small but very strong. One chases a rabbit, which almost escapes by hiding in a hollow log, but the wolverine rolls the log into the water, forcing the rabbit to run out. The wolverine is soon distracted by an osprey nest high in a tree, and although the osprey mother dive-bombs the animal, she cannot prevent it from eating her baby. After a quick summer, the cold season returns, signaling the caribou and reindeer herds to leave for southern forests. The ice makes travel difficult, so they "make haste slowly," hurrying so they will not be trapped by sudden blizzards. Winter soon rages in the Arctic, but life will come again next season, recreating patterns of survival in nature's white wilderness.
Robert O. Cook
James R. Simon
Erwin L. Verity
Hugh A. Wilmar
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.
James Algar's opening credit reads: "Written and directed by." Huband-and-wife photography team Herb Crisler and Lois Crisler are credited onscreen as "Herb and Lois Crisler." The opening credits include the following written acknowledgment: "With the cooperation of the Canadian Wildlife Service, National Park Service of Canada, Province of Alberta Dept. of Lands and Forests, Province of Manitoba Game Branch, Hudson's Bay Company, McKinley National Park." As with the previous "True-Life Adventure" features, White Wilderness begins with an animated paintbrush depicting the narrator's description of prehistoric times.
The following information was taken from studio press materials: The film was shot over three years in the Arctic regions of Canada and Alaska. Native American trappers and Eskimo guides led photographers, by foot, plane and dogteam, into areas including the Foxe Channel off Southampton Island, Brooks Range, La Paz and the Thelon River. Hundreds of thousands of feet of 16mm film were compiled, then edited and transferred to 35mm. Individual assignments included: Hugh A. Wilmar shot the polar bears and walruses; the Crislers filmed the grey wolves; James R. Simon and Lloyd Beebe captured images of the wolverine; Beebe, with a Canadian Wildlife Service biologist, shot the caribou and musk ox; Carl Thomsen filmed ice and snow scenes; Richard Tegstrom photographed reindeer; and Dick Bird snapped the duck family.
As noted in the Hollywood Reporter review, studio footage of animals in controlled situations and some special effects were added to the wildlife footage to give the audience more subjective perspectives. Many reviews referred to White Wilderness as the finest of the True-Life Adventure films. For more information on the series, refer to the Series Index and The Living Desert, below. White Wilderness won the 1958 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.