PHILIP KAUFMAN’S THE WHITE DAWN – A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The White Dawn is a rugged, cold, manly film, directed with an intense muscularity by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Wanderers). Released in 1974, the film tells the story of three whalers who become stranded in the Arctic Circle in 1896, and details their rescue by Inuit strangers. Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Louis Gossett, Jr. are the three men trapped in the barren tundra, unaware of how their cultural differences could potentially lead them down a path of violent conflict with their saviors. Shot on location on Baffin Island in Northern Canada, the film feels desolate and forbidding, with the constant snow and wind peppering the visuals and soundtrack with an icy chilliness that you can feel in your bones. What’s more, the filmmakers employed authentic dialect on the part of the Inuit characters, in many instances sans English subtitles, which ratchets up the tension and the verisimilitude of the entire project. Based on the 1971 novel The White Dawn: An Eskimo Saga, original author James Houston was able to co-write the screenplay with producer Martin Ransohoff and Thomas Rickman (Coal Miner’s Daughter), which details how the whalers ingratiate themselves into the Inuit tribe, and then how they slowly try to take control over the group by foisting their American/European values on a group of people who have become accustomed to a VERY particular way of life. Warren Oates makes the biggest impression (no surprise) out of the trio of rapscallions, playing a boozer who is more than happy to teach the natives the values of the drink and gambling, while Bottoms’s affair with one of the women certainly raises some local eyebrows. But the most impressive aspect of this production was clearly the physical demands that Kaufman placed on his brave crew and dedicated cast, many of whom were clearly amateurs. There are shots that defy logic (especially for the time and on the relative miniscule budget when compared with today’s blockbuster standards), with Michael Chapman’s bleak cinematography offering up a blunt, unassuming, and matter of fact view of this harsh lifestyle, while the musical score by Henry Mancini is appropriate in all respects, never overpowering the story, but contributing to the overall sense of exploration and finally dread that settles in for the characters. This is a macho stuff, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes survival based cinema.

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