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The White Dawn

The White Dawn (1974) presents an interesting crossroads in the careers of its primary participants. Director Philip Kaufman was an up-and comer, on his way to making The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Warren Oates was having a year that any actor would kill to have on their résumé with the release of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Cockfighter, in what was certainly the apex of his career. The Peckinpah stalwart teamed with the young director, and with a small crew they spent four harsh months battling the elements to create this compelling adaptation. Based on James Houston's novel, which is in turn based on Inuit folklore he had learned while teaching arts and language to the indigenous people, The White Dawn tells the story of three whalers stranded in the Canadian Arctic in 1896. Saved by an Inuit tribe (played by the natives themselves) who figure them for children of a Dog deity and thus take them in to their nomadic encampment, the whalers set about adjusting to their new life while fashioning plans to get home. The cultural divide is explored from three fairly distinct viewpoints. Daggett (Timothy Bottoms, most recently known for his roles as George W. Bush) wishes to acclimate to his new surroundings. While his ingratiating personality earns him friends among the tribe, as well as a chance to bed tribal leader Sarkak's wife Neevee, his desire to trust the Inuit blinds him to the danger of being a stranger amongst the tribe. Portagee (Lou Gossett Jr., in a graceful performance), whose dark skin makes him a more obvious outcast, wishes only to survive. Billy (Oates) is the leader of the crew, and his lack of respect for the Inuit culture places him in the unfortunate position to cause the most damage. While the Inuit seem to be the savage culture at the outset, the introduction of vice by the outsiders over time makes things seem quite to the contrary. Gambling, thievery, and drinking have the expected effect on the peaceful Inuit society, and the shaman who predicts the tribe's doom at the hands of the outsiders seems to be the voice of reason while also showing a cunning desire to use the presence of the "Dog-children" to bring the tribe back to its mythological roots. The documentary style used by Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman makes the middle act of the film play almost like a nature program on The Discovery Channel. In between the first and third acts, which have sharp, dark tones that underscore the ill-fated whalers dire circumstances, the bulk of the film illustrates the lifestyle of the Inuit people as they travel across the tundra in search of hunting grounds. The focus on the story is somewhat lost during this stretch, but with each interaction between whaler and Eskimo, the divide between the cultures is made more apparent, even to those who wish to ignore it. Paramount presents The White Dawn in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and monaural Dolby Digital audio. Philip Kaufman gives an introduction to the film, as well as a full-length commentary. Also included are the "making-of" featurette "Welcoming the Dawn" and a brief piece featuring James Houston called "A Way of Life: The World of the Inuit," in which he points out specific parts of the film for their accuracy. Keep-case.
—Scott Anderson



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