In 1896, three whalers are stranded in the Arctic North Canada and seek refuge with an Eskimo tribe. Gradually, they gain control with the Eskimo village and introduce gambling, booze, ...
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Samuel L. Jackson,
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In 1896, three whalers are stranded in the Arctic North Canada and seek refuge with an Eskimo tribe. Gradually, they gain control with the Eskimo village and introduce gambling, booze, theft, and their special variation of sex. In the beginning, the Eskimos accept it, but slowly the cultural tension starts growing.Written by
Frank Christensen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Truth told there's something about the movie that doesn't work, something that stops it just short of fulfilling the potential promised by the setting, story, and talent involved. The problem is not that there's little of plot to speak of because this is the kind of movie that actually benefits from thin plotting but still something seems to be missing.
It could be that the movie follows in episodic fashion the life and misadventures of three whalers stranded in Arctic Canada who are saved from certain death by a group of Eskimos but does so without urgency, capturing an evocative snapshot of Eskimo life, perhaps very faithfully, but still in a very Discovery Channel kind of way. Sure, bears and sea otters are slaughtered for food, but it's that, natives trying to survive in their natural habitat the only way they know, not castaways desperately trying to survive in a hostile world the only way they can. We don't see the three fishes out of water struggling to survive, most everything (food, shelter, even women) is provided for them by the friendly Eskimos.
It could be that the movie is designed, conceived, as a mood piece yet is shot in a very generic by-the-numbers way. If Philip Kaufman captures no small amount of awe-inspiring shots of the glacial Canadian landscape where the movie was shot, it's because he had little more to do than point the camera at any direction around him to get them. You can imagine how much more potential someone like Werner Herzog could have milked out of a setting like this. The individual shots are good but the way they're strung together is mundane and workmanlike.
It could be that for a grim and visceral 'man in the wilderness' adventure, WHITE DAWN is really not very grim or visceral. Kaufman doesn't allow a sense of urgency frostbitten danger or impending doom to seep in. When the three whalers make a run for freedom with a stolen Eskimo boat only to find themselves stranded in the ice again, an Eskimo conveniently shows up to lead them back to safety. Misguidedly the emphasis here is on picturesque rather than bleak. Compare how the three whalers are treated by the friendly wife-sharing Eskimos to the gruesome fate that is reserved in the hands of Algonquin Indians for the Catholic missionaries in Bruce Beresford's BLACK ROBE and the difference highlights a lot of what makes WHITE DAWN a mostly lighthearted affair.
Still, not unlike Nicholas Ray's THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS, a lot of the small vignettes that show the whalers cohabiting with the Eskimos are a lot of fun to watch. Chief among the one where Warren Oates cons a man out of his two daughters in a knife-throwing betting contest. But unlike Ray's movie, THE WHITE DAWN hovers plot less, suspended between beautiful scenery and Eskimo customs, for a little too long.
Perhaps it's the combination of all the above reasons that makes WHITE DAWN an interesting watchable movie, one closer to a hit than a miss. Warren Oates as the grizzly scruffy third mate is a pleasure to watch, this is the kind of character he could play with eyes closed and that's pretty much what he does. And then there's the ending, which I won't spoil, that couldn't have come from anywhere else than typically disillusioned 70's American cinema.
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