The Savage Innocents Review
It’s possible to find many faults in Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents but you can’t deny it’s slightly lunatic courage – guts it’s got. In this respect, it resembles its director, one of the few American filmmakers who genuinely deserves to be called a maverick. Ray was hugely ambitious, wilfully awkward and his work flails alarmingly from the professionally competent and conventional to the utterly bizarre. His work is sometimes dazzlingly impressive and occasionally embarrassingly off-target but he’s got the obsession of a true visionary and in The Savage Innocents, his vision is allowed to hold sway. For many years, it’s been dismissed as an artistic and commercial failure and this is understandable because the film is somewhat remote, even alienating at times. But it’s also madly, wildly beautiful.
I suppose you could call the film a pseudo-documentary which explores the life of the Eskimo peoples, or the Inuits as they are now generally called. An unintentionally amusing stentorian voiceover informs us that Eskimo means ‘eater of raw flesh’ and it is their feeding habits which seem to dominate much of the first half of the film, perhaps because the need to find nourishment in a difficult environment is one of the controlling desires of Eskimo life. We follow the character of Inuk (Quinn), an Eskimo male whose desire to find a wife to laugh with (i.e. fuck) is matched only by his need to be a great hunter. He discovers happiness with a young woman called Asiak (Tuni) and soon has a family to feed. But need drives him to go to a trading post where he comes into contact with the ‘white men’ who are increasingly encroaching onto Eskimo territory with the kind of hunting weapons that make the Eskimo bows and arrows seem primitive. As so often in Nicholas Ray’s films, the outsider finds himself completely alienated and a terrible accident turns him into the hunted.
Nicholas Ray’s greatest strength was for visual moments which are deeply affecting for reasons which the viewer can’t quite rationalise. In this respect, and working with the great Italian DP Aldo Tonti (who also shot Reflections in a Golden Eye for that other great maverick John Huston), the semi-documentary form was ideal for him and there are scenes here which typify his ability to hit the spectator’s unguarded emotions – the cascade of polar bears as they don’t so much jump into but merge with the water, the daughter of a old woman feeding her mother from her own mouths like a bird and, most famously, the sound of an American jukebox echoing around the glaciers like a terrible reminder of the inevitable corruption which civilisation inflicts on everything it touches. Ray uses his actors superbly, allowing Anthony Quinn’s face to become an emotional barometer which expresses far more than the trite, self-consciously poetic dialogue. He has the ability to hit on an image which tells its own story – the gorgeous track away from Inuk’s mother-in-law as she chooses suicide rather than seeing her family starve is one of the most desperately heartbreaking scenes in cinema, despite the over-explanatory voiceover which tries so hard to spoil it.
Then there is the use of the Techniscope frame which is, as you’d expect with Ray, quite remarkable. In Rebel Without a Cause, Ray tore up whatever rule books had been developed about the use of the widescreen format and wrote his own guide, one which emphasised the importance of empty space, frames within frames and the ability which the wide frame gives to explore the corners of life and the reactions which happen right at the edge of our view. Ray knows exactly when to go wide and when to move right in, realising instinctively the moment when we need to see a human face fill the frame. The vast Arctic landscapes of The Savage Innocents give him the perfect opportunity to exercise his own ‘Scope discipline. Of course, the contemporary viewer has to accept the use of process work and the clash between obvious studio backgrounds and location footage. But the sense of vast space unconquered by man become intoxicating after a while and the huge vistas of snow shaded by the endless promise of the horizon have the same fascination that the desert offers in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Perhaps it’s a natural response to living in an urban society but I find a peculiar fascination in films which explore the idea of a natural landscape as an entity in itself. Some movies do it incidentally – the DP John Coquillon built a whole career on this with his work on Witchfinder General and Straw Dogs - but The Savage Innocents places it right at the centre of the narrative. It’s beautiful but also intimidating and somewhat disturbing – which is ironically the reaction which Inuk has to ‘civilisation’ when he finds it. One particularly significant element in this regard is the fact that the first artefact of Western civilisation which Inuk comes into contact with is the wholly destructive force of a gun. You can see a metaphor developing here, one whose anti-Western and, quite obviously, anti-American implications seem way ahead of their time. But Ray was always a vociferous critic of American society, sometimes in ‘coded’ ways as in Bigger Than Life and sometimes in crashingly literal but deliciously provocative ways as in Rebel Without a Cause. That title seems apt in all but one way – Nick Ray was a rebel with a cause, one which took a lot of guts to get away with in Hollywood. The Savage Innocents was made outside America, financed by France, Italy and the UK but it’s commercial failure seems to have disillusioned its director.
It’s entirely possible to look at the film as naïve and somewhat patronising. But that’s a judgement made purely in hindsight and does little justice to Nicholas Ray’s achievement. His portrait of Eskimo life is certainly done from an outsider’s perspective which sees the culture as unforgivingly strange but it’s also full of love and understanding. Ray was a cultured, insightful man whose refusal to judge his characters is one of the hallmarks of his filmmaking. This made him a controversial figure, even in the more culturally liberal climate of 1950s Hollywood, and it tends to disturb viewers who want clear-cut moral perspectives and simple characterisation. But it serves to demonstrate how he is one of the filmmakers most in tune with what was to come in post-1967 American filmmaking and it’s a tragedy that he didn’t continue to work regularly in the climate which afforded such (transitory and perhaps ultimately illusory) freedom to artists such as Robert Altman and Arthur Penn. The career of co-screenwriter Franco Solinas suggests a possible way forward for Ray; the writer found a certain kind of notoriety through his involvement in visceral polemic such as The Battle of Algiers, State of Siege and, most suggestively, Spaghetti Westerns such as A Bullet For The General. It’s interesting to imagine what the disillusioned idealist Ray might have achieved within the generic confines of the Italian Western.
The Savage Innocents doesn’t pretend to understand Eskimo culture. But it shows things which strike us as incredibly hard to understand with immense sympathy and intelligence and that’s something which is very rare. Nicholas Ray and his writers Hans Ruesch and Franco Solinas don’t try to interpret the culture in easily accessible, Western terms. They show but they don’t tell us how to react and this respect for our intelligence is another characteristic of Ray’s filmmaking. The problems with the film – the dialogue, some of the more melodramatic plot points during the second half, our difficulty in accepting Anthony Quinn as an Eskimo – don’t seem to matter much in retrospect and a second viewing brings the strengths into focus. For much of the time, we really do seem to be at the edge of the world and when Inuk and his family go out into the snow at the end into a icy desert which offers endless human possibilities, the desire to go their with him is palpable.
Eureka’s wonderful Masters of Cinema series has unearthed a whole series of movies which cried out to be rediscovered and The Savage Innocents is a worthy addition to the collection.
It’s not a great transfer by any stretch of the imagination but given that this is the first time we’ve seen the film in its correct OAR for home viewing, the limitations of the transfer are forgivable. The level of detail varies from a little hazy to excellent – the interior scenes are better in this respect – but the visual impact of the exteriors is unsullied. The print displays occasional signs of damage and some artifacting is evident throughout. Colors are generally good and sometimes very pleasing, especially that gorgeous pink tinge of sun on the horizon. Over-enhancement is an occasional problem. Overall, however, it’s pleasing enough and the joy of seeing the film in the Scope format is a huge compensation for any problems.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is a two-channel mono presentation and has occasional problems. There is a lot of hiss in places and some definite crackling at times which can become a little intrusive. But the rich music score comes across well and dialogue is always clear.
The main extra feature is a commentary track from film historians David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn. This is fascinating and very useful, offering both an encyclopaedic knowledge of film history and an intelligent insight into the film itself. Anyone even remotely interested in the movie should listen to this – I learned a good deal and hope to encounter both gentlemen in the future. They have the knack of being very informative without appearing too professorial. Along with this there is a gallery of promotional material and a 24 page booklet which sounds promising but wasn’t included with my review copy.
Subtitles are offered for the film but not for the commentary track.
Not everyone will like The Savage Innocents but it’s the kind of awkward, uncompromising film which defined Nick Ray as a filmmaker. For this alone, it’s essential viewing. Even if you shift about restlessly while watching it, you’ll be left with indelible images in your mind and a second viewing really does bring it all together with a force which I found hard to resist.