Visually stunning – colour and Cinemascope allow director Nicholas Ray to dwell to his heart’s content on endless expanses of snow, looming white icebergs and the blue Arctic Ocean – The Savage Innocents features Anthony Quinn as an Eskimo (who almost certainly provided the inspiration for the Bob Dylan song Quinn The Eskimo).
According to custom, Inuk (Quinn), a husky Eskimo hunter, borrows other men’s wives but eventually decides he should have a spouse of his own and wins Asiak (Yôko Tani), a comely lass.
In their fight for existence, Inuk, Asiak and Powtee (Marie Yang), Asiak’s ageing mother, experience many stark adventures.
Inuk barters furs for a gun at a trading post and then invites a missionary (Marco Guglielmi) to his igloo. The preacher, unsurprisingly, refuses a meal of caribou eyes, ptarmigan dung, auk slime and fermented bear brain, but Inuk – still anxious to please his guest – offers him Asiak.
The missionary then tries to flee, but Inuk, incensed at the insult to his wife, grabs him and bashes his head against the wall until he dies.
The frightened Inuk, Asiak and Powtee head for home, but state troopers pursue Inuk, and soon after Asiak bears Inuk’s son, Inuk is caught.
During the journey south, one trooper freezes to death, but Inuk saves the other trooper (Peter O’Toole in his first film) from a similar fate.
When the grateful trooper fully recovers in Inuk’s igloo, he tries to prevent Inuk from standing trial, knowing he will be convicted of murder.
Inuk cannot understand that he has done wrong in avenging the insult to Asiak, but finally, the trooper tricks him into avoiding the hangman.
The film deals with the culture clash between the savage innocents and the white man’s “advanced” civilisation, coming down strongly on the side of the Eskimos and treating them with tremendous respect.
Ray – who also directed Rebel Without A Cause (1955) – was not a great friend of civilisation, and audiences certainly left The Savage Innocents with a heightened awareness of the price they paid for their big ships and boats.
Peter O’Toole’s voice is dubbed in the film.
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Francis De Wolff