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Hunt down the deleted Masters of Cinema DVD for the best presentation of Nicholas Ray's flawed but fascinating drama,
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This review is from: The Savage Innocents [DVD] (DVD)
A throwback to that briefly popular 20s-30s anthropological genre of films dealing with the Inuit lifestyle like Nanook of the North and Men of Two Worlds, Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents seems caught between reconstructions of daily life complete with explanatory narration and a culture clash drama when two incompatible moralities meet with potentially disastrous consequences. At the time the film's rather innocent portrayal of wife-swapping caused it no end of censorship troubles but unfortunately from a modern perspective the film is troubling in different ways: at times it's hard to shake the feeling that the film is guilty of unintentionally patronising the Inuit characters, played by a mixture of Mexican (Anthony Quinn), Japanese (Yoko Tani), Chinese-American (Anna May Wong) and even British actors (Lee Montague) as childishly happy and incapable of grasping abstract concepts or other cultures' different morality, while the scenes where polar bears are killed on camera are out of step in a time when they're regarded as endangered species rather than a source of food. If it over-romanticises its hero as a somewhat unconvincingly `uncorrupted' savage - and it takes a big leap of faith to believe he lives so far north he'd never even heard of a gun let alone seen one - in its favour, it's non-judgmental, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the best thing for both Inuits and whites is to keep as far away from reach other as possible.
It's problematic in other ways as well. While the location footage is impressive, the studio work and some terrible back projection and green screen work are particularly obvious while the dubbing of one of the actors in a small but crucial supporting role is especially jarring since a couple of years later he'd become a major star (again starring opposite Anthony Quinn) playing Lawrence of Arabia. Earning its place in popular music trivia after its theatre marquee was the inspiration for Bob Dylan's Quinn the Eskimo ("You ain't seen nothin' like the Mighty Quinn"), it's certainly a film you have to make a lot of allowances for, yet somehow it still manages to hold the interest and exert some fascination in its celebration of a (not terribly accurately portrayed) philosophy and way of life most of its audience could never begin to understand even though its ambitions are never fully realised.
Because of rights problems, it's become particularly hard to find in its uncut form - Masters of Cinema did release a strikingly good 2.35:1 widescreen transfer of the uncut version with audio commentary and stills gallery, but that was pulled from release for legal reasons (though you can still find the odd copy second hand), while the subsequent UK release by Prism was an atrocious fullframe transfer of the cut US release print.