March 08, 2009

Eskimo won Oscar

Rare Chance to See 'Eskimos'The classic movie, shot in black and white in 1934, was filmed near Teller, Alaska, and showcases the struggles of an Eskimo family to survive. It won an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.Eskimo (1933)Mala leads a contented life as the best hunter in his Canadian Arctic tribe, providing meat, fish and birds with his great skill. When another tribe member returns from trading furs with the white men for items such as a gun and an iron needle, Mala's wife, Aba, urges him to make the 500-mile trek across the frozen tundra to do the same. After the long night of winter, Mala does go with his family to the white man's "floating house" in Tjarnak. The friendly captain makes trade for Mala's excellent furs, but upsets Mala when he insists that Aba sleep with him that night. "He didn't even ask me!" Mala complains. Afterwards, the captain suggests that Mala go whale hunting and promises not to touch his wife, so Mala agrees. But news of a successful catch spurs a celebration on board ship, and the captain has Aba forcibly removed from her tent, plied with liquor, and then he rapes her. In the morning, the still-drunk Aba staggers from the ship, but collapses in the snow, where she is mistaken for an animal by a hunter and shot and killed. When Mala returns from the whaling expedition, he learns that Aba "has swallowed sleep." He is so enraged he harpoons the captain, packs up his dog sled team and leaves with the rest of his family. It takes some time to recover from his grief and take on two new wives including Iva, who has loved him all along. The newly formed Royal Canadian Mounted Police learns of the murder and dispatches two mounties to arrest Mala. Ironically, Mala finds them frozen in the snow, near death, and saves their lives reluctantly, since he now trusts no white man. But they convince him they are his friends and must go back with them or else they may starve. So he goes, leaving his family behind. At the RCMP base, Mala learns from a translator he may hang. With great effort, he slips out of his shackled wrist, injuring his hand, steals food and a dog sled team and heads back to his land. In the morning, the two mounties go after him.Eskimo--Original Trailer 1933The remarkable location-filmed Eskimo was adapted from two books: Die Flucht Ins Wiesse Land and Der Eskimo, both written by naturalist Peter Freuchen. Director Woody Van Dyke, in the tradition of his White Shadows on the South Seas and Trader Horn, took his cast and crew on location to the Arctic, arriving by whaling schooner at the topmost settlement in Alaska with author Freuchen as his guide. Van Dyke, Freuchen, and cinematographer Ray Wise also played prominent on-screen roles in the film. Eskimo Ray Mala (billed only by his last name) essays the title role, speaking in the tongue of his ancestors (even though his English was excellent). Rather than use superimposed titles, Van Dyke resorted to old-fashioned silent-movie subtitles in several dialogue sequences. The story concentrates on the more exotic aspects of Eskimo life, notably the race's (alleged) casual approach to sex. Though tribal leader Mala has, by his own admission, slept with 20 women without benefit of clergy, woe betide anyone who tries to steal his current sweetheart--as a rapacious trader discovers when he's harpooned to death by the cuckolded hero. Mala is ultimately undone by the Canadian Mounties, whose efforts to civilize the Eskimo community result in a sudden and tragic shift of the balance of power. Editor Conrad A. Nervig won an Oscar for his Herculean efforts to bring cohesiveness to the story. Performing respectably at the box office, Eskimo inspired another location jaunt in 1935: Last of the Pagans, which also starred Ray Mala.Comment:  Is this the first movie with Native people to win an Oscar? Could be.

I haven't seen Eskimo. It seems to treat its Natives as primitive but sympathetic savages. The treatment could be worse, especially for a 1933 movie.

For more on the subject, see Eskimos:  The Ultimate Aborigines and The Best Indian Movies.

1 comment:

Melvin Martin said...

This movie is very similar in plot to "The Savage Innocents" (1959) starring Anthony Quinn as an Eskimo, and the Japanese actress Yoko Tani as his wife.