Saturday 11 April 2009

Eskimo (1933)

Director: W S Van Dyke
Stars: Mala, Lotus Long

This 1933 melodrama from One Take Woody van Dyke lays claim to some important things even before we begin. Apparently it was shot in the Arctic from April 1932 to November 1933, and excepting the actors who played Canadian policemen, with the 'entire story told by primitive Eskimos in Native tongue, in Native custom.' It's all about the moral code of the Eskimos, expounded in the source books by Peter Freuchen and presented here as 'a strange, primeval Creed belonging to the farthest wilderness of the endless North.'

As you can probably imagine from the overblown language, this is nonsense, or at least a serious stretch of the truth. 1933 was a fascinating time for exotica and Hollywood was very aware of the huge market for this sort of material. The world was a small place, with most people learning about it through the pages of National Geographic, the pulp magazines or the movie serials. This was a time when it wasn't far fetched to believe in the basic material that writers like Robert E Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs used as their building blocks: lost tribes, hidden temples and cities of gold. There's none of that here, but it's just as exotic and farflung.

The US had plenty of wildernesses of its own in 1933: it was up to 48 states, but Alaska was still a territory, one that was a long way away from the majority of Americans, visitable only through stories or through films like this. So off went Hollywood to bring it to the screen, and it's a fascinating film, if one that doesn't meet all the claims thrown at us at the beginning. It was produced by MGM, the biggest of the studios, and it won the first Academy Award for editing. Also known also as Mala the Magnificent, it was billed as 'The Biggest Picture Ever Made', another claim that went unfulfilled given that it was released in the same year as King Kong.

There's not much of a plot to speak of, as this work of fiction works far better for its depictions of Inuit culture than for its story. We follow an Eskimo called Mala, who is a great hunter but one whose life is changed through contact with white men. Ray Mala may well have been a 'primitive Eskimo' in 1932 when he starred in a feature length documentary called Igloo, but was becoming a real actor when he made this film. He's amateurish for a while but later scenes are played very well indeed. Eskimo made him a very recognised man and he went on to play Eskimos and Hawaiians and other exotic roles in another decade of films and serials, including parts in Green Hell, Call of the Yukon and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Life is good in the north as Mala and his tribe hunt fish, walrus and polar bear, but winter is coming and they travel south to meet up with a white trader and his ship to trade furs for guns. Unfortunately this doesn't work out too well. The peglegged captain takes Mala's wife, which is vaguely OK because of the Eskimo concept of passing around wives, but when he goes hunting the next day he makes this skipper promise to leave his wife alone. Naturally the promise is broken, as the captain steals away and rapes Mala's wife, who escapes only to be shot dead in a tragic accident. For this breach of promise, Mala returns to the ship and kills him with a harpoon.

All this is melodrama in the extreme, and is hardly conducive to a good film let alone a great one. It's only fascinating because the unnamed peglegged captain is played by Peter Freuchen, who had really lost his leg to frostbite in 1926. Therefore this character guilty of raping Mala's wife and inadvertently bringing about her death, who laughs at the concept of Eskimo love and the possibility of offering something to Mala in apology, was amazingly played by the Danish writer and explorer who penned the source material this film was based on, who lived for years with the Polar Inuit in Thule, Greenland, and who had been married for ten years to an Inuit lady himself, Navarana Meqopaluk, until her death in the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Luckily this isn't all that Eskimo has to offer. It truly comes alive about three quarters of the way in, when Mala has returned to his people. He's still grieving for his wife, so won't take another, but the tribe welcomes him back and we're treated to scene after scene of great power. He visits with the spirits who give him a new name, Kripik. With this new name he can leave the past behind and look to the future, taking two wives as a gift from a friend, Inapaujak and Iva, the latter of whom was played by Lotus Long, half Hawaiian and half Japanese and not a native Inuit in the slightest. There's also a magnificent caribou stampede, all the more spectacular given that it doesn't involve the sort of rear projection shots that lessened earlier hunts for walrus and polar bear.

And into the film come those professional actors, or at least those that aren't pretending not to be, for the second half of our melodrama, which plays much better than the first. They're members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who found a remote outpost at Fox Inlet. As Sgt Hunt tells the few locals why he's there and what his purpose is, he discovers Mala's crime and goes out looking for him. They flounder in the snow, only for Mala to save their lives. Confusion reigns given that he's now called Kripik, but eventually they work out who he is and take him back to Fox Inlet to wait for Inspector White to arrive to question him.

This takes a little while, so Mala saves them all a second time by going out to hunt and provide food for the outlet. When Insp White turns up, in the person of director Woody van Dyke himself, he's confronted with a rather bizarre spectacle: his prisoner is not only not locked up in irons, but he's been sleeping with the police themselves and is currently out hunting without any accompaniment. Because Insp White is a little strict on procedure he orders Sgt Hunt to manacle Mala, which prompts a dramatic escape and chase through the frozen wastes of the north.

So what we have here is a lot of things. It's an event, apparently a big one back in 1933, that made a new star and a huge impact. It's a great depiction of Eskimo culture, in this instance the Inupiat of northwestern Alaska, and it's told almost entirely in native Inupiat with a little English thrown in there too for the traders and police to work in. It's a reasonable melodrama, that starts badly but gets better as the film runs on. It's a visual spectacle, with some awesome scenes of nature in action, from walrus and caribou to floating sheets of ice. Most of all it's an artefact and an interesting one in a lot of ways.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This movie does provide some documentary footage in that there are local Inupiat people in "roles". It provides footage of people's grandparents, great grandparents, family scenes, hunting scenes and preserves language patterns. Which is funny as the character "Iva" uses a form of referring to "oneself" in the english translation that is generally thought of as I, Me, Myself in Inupiaq. Not to mention that she is Hawaiian Japanese and not Inupiaq in the least.