The White Dawn was a film both ahead of and behind its time. In the early 70s a film about the fatal culture clash between three stranded whalers (Warren Oates, Lou Gosset and Timothy Bottoms) and a tribe of Inuits at the turn of the 20th Century was too early for the eco-friendly green lobby and far too late for either the hippies or the slew of early pseudo-documentary adventures like Nanook of the North and Men of Two Worlds, although a fight with a polar bear did manage to infuriate animal rights activists despite the animal being rather too-obviously unharmed. The film made barely a ripple at the box-office or with the critics before quietly disappearing and causing Paramount to cancel Philip Kaufman's intended follow-up for the studio, a Star Trek movie spin-off
Being a Kaufman film, the emphasis is on an alien, more spiritual way of life rather than high adventure as the trio of "dog-children" bring their saviors nothing but bad luck, their not necessarily hostile inability to understand and abide by a different set of cultural and moral values ultimately corrupting their hosts and ending in an uncharacteristic act of premeditated violence (the moral of the tale: never accept a pair of mittens from an Inuit). There IS a certain element of contrivance underpinning the story, most notably their conflict with a hostile travelling Shaman, but the film generally manages to avoid National Geographic voyeurism and patronising melodrama, taking its pace from the seasons and the move from hunting ground to hunting ground. Unlike The Savage Innocents and its all-too-obvious studio shooting and dubbing, it also benefits immensely from being shot entirely on location with non-professional actors.
Yet despite the strong visuals, in many ways the real star of the film is Henry Mancini's astonishingly beautiful score. A world away from the easy listening elevator musak he's now associated with, the style is closer to his lyrical score for The Molly Maguires without the melancholy, although the main theme was expanded from a piece an Inuit woman improvised on the set. Never released on record aside from a couple of extracts on Mancini compilation albums, Kaufman reused the lyrical theme for the orbiting the Earth sequence in The Right Stuff. It's a shame Paramount didn't include an isolated score on the R1 NTSC DVD (the score was subsequently released in the US as a limited edition), although it does at least come with a couple of interesting featurettes and a commentary by Kaufman.