The Savage Innocents is a film adapted from the novel Top of the World by Swiss writer Hans Rüesch. The movie was released in 1960 and stars Anthony Quinn as an Eskimo hunter, simply named "Inuk". I’m not sure exactly when the story takes place, but it involves indigenous arctic peoples who have not had contact with the "white man" or guns. A scene shot in a trading post suggests it is the late 1950s, because there is a jukebox playing rock and roll. Everyone speaks English so I’m guessing it is Canada.
If you’ve ever wondered what the inspiration for the song “The Mighty Quinn” was, it was this movie. By the way, the song was written and first recorded by Bob Dylan in 1967 after he saw The Savage Innocents, but was popularized by Manfred Mann.
Inuk the Eskimo is lonely. He spends his days hunting and doesn’t have a woman to “laugh” with. According to the movie, “to laugh with” is the Eskimo way of saying “make love to”. Inuk’s hunter friend Anarvik offers him his own wife to “laugh with”. “You may laugh with my wife for awhile", he says. "You have permission. A little change does her good. Makes her eyes shine.”
Inuk replies, “This man is tired of asking for favors. He wishes to laugh with a woman of his own”.
Inuk’s friend Anarvik is greatly insulted because Inuk refused his offer, calling him rude and ungrateful, and they get into a fight which ends with Inuk bashing Anarvik’s head into the wall of his igloo, knocking him out cold. Inuk is a proud hunter and a very big man who doesn’t know his own strength.
The first part of the movie concerns Inuk’s quest for a wife. Later it follows his quest to obtain a gun from the trading post by killing 100 foxes in order to trade in their skins.
THE WHITE MAN IS CRAZY
After dancing to the jukebox and getting drunk on whiskey at the trading post, the night after seeing white men for the very first time, Inuk’s wife, Asiak, concludes that the white man is crazy. “Something is wrong with the white man”, she says. “If his gun is any good, why does he eat those evil smelling things out of a tin can? And why doesn’t he smile? And why doesn’t he laugh with the women of the men? And why doesn’t he know that the small igloo is quicker to build, and easier to keep warm than a house like this?” She convinces Inuk to leave the trading post that night so they can sleep more comfortably in an igloo outside. They don't even bother taking the new gun Inuk bought with them.
KILLING THE PRIEST
The next morning, a priest comes to Inuk and Asiak’s igloo to introduce them to The Lord: “If you will listen to my words and believe in Him, the Lord will come with you and stay with you, in all your travels”.
“We don't not want another with us,'” Asiak whispers to Inuk.
“Maybe he good hunter,'” Inuk replies. Then the says to the priest, “We would be pleased if he came with us.”
Asiak adds, “He must bring own sled.”
When Inuk politely offers to have the priest laugh with his wife, the priest vehemently refuses: “No. No. NO! It’s a SIN! It’s EVIL! BAD!”
Echoing the movie’s first scene with his friend Anarvik, Inuk gets extremely offended and tells the priest he is rude and has no manners. He pushes the priest against the ice wall, smashing the back of his skull in and accidentally killing him.
The custom of wife lending among the pre-Christian Inuit comes up repeatedly in the movie and is discussed in this article at The Straight Dope, which argues that it was not as common as previously perceived, and a limited practice primarily confined to religious rituals.
The rest of the movie follows Inuk and Asiak's flight from the trading post into the arctic wilderness, and Inuk's eventual arrest by the police for murder.
The Savage Innocents can be seen in it’s entirety on YouTube (in 11 parts), and also is available on Netflix Watch Instantly.
The first time I attempted to watch The Savage Innocents I couldn’t get past the first few minutes. Anthony Quinn sometimes plays Inuk like a stupid goofball and I found that a little offensive. In the movie the term "Eskimo" is said to mean "eater of raw flesh". It is considered pejorative in Canada and Greenland. That interpretation of "Eskimo" has been disproved and the real meaning of the term is thought to be "snowshow netter". Real footage of the arctic wilderness and icebergs is cut with scenes shot in the studio with fake snow and stryofoam ice, and seals which look like they are right out of a Ringling Brother’s and Barnum and Bailey Circus act. Someone who grew up with today's slick and glossy cinematography and high budget production values might not have the patience for this movie. The other Inuit characters are played by Asian (Chinese and Japanese) actors. Occasionally Yoko Tami’s Japanese accent slips through. After a while though, I got used to the cheesy sets and got caught up in the story. Overall, I think the movie does a good job of portraying the clash between cultures: one open, simple, unsophisticated, violent and superstitious, and the other complex, rigid, controlling, and equally violent and superstitious.
HOLLYWOOD IS RACIST
Despite its inaccuracies, at least the movie tried to be authentic with the character Inuk. I don't think it was intentionally making fun of racial stereotypes. I would view it in the context of Hollywood's generally racist track record. Take my two favorite most racially−offensive characters of all time, Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and Long Duk Dong played by Gedde Watanabe in Sixteen Candles (1984) as examples. Mr. Yunioshi is an example of Japanese bashing plain and simple. After all, racism was literally an institution in the 60s! In contrast to Mr. Yunioshi, who is clearly Japanese, Long Duk Dong is some undefined oriental, referred to as a “Chinaman” in the movie, but has a Japanese accent and is introduced with the opening riff from The Vapor’s song “Turning Japanese”! You would think people would have known the difference in the 1980s. Whatever -- Hollywood knows that white people can't tell those slanty-eyed orientals apart anyway and don't really care to!
Then there is the enduring problem of non-white characters being played by white actors. Did you know that martial artist Bruce Lee was passed up for the lead role in the TV series Kung Fu, which was instead given to David Carradine? Bruce Lee apparently just looked too Chinese to play a Shaolin priest! Recently, in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender (2010), all of the key roles of Inuit and Asian characters were filled by white actors. Anthony Quinn by the way, was Mexican−American.
If you are up for watching a more recent and incredibly offensive depiction of indigenous arctic people, watch this clip from the Australian show, The Pitch -- Selling Ice to Eskimos. Wow, I didn’t realize people down under were just as racist as Americans are, but I guess it shouldn't surprise me!
THE KAYAK SCENE
The part of The Savage Innocents relevant to this blog is, of course, the kayak scene. The kayaks look like authentic Greenland skin−on−frame qajaqs complete with the harpoon line stand (asaloq) and bladder float (avataq). Look how the kayakers paddle, occasionally crunching forward. I think these might be real hunters. The funny part is when Inuk and his friend come across a huge colony of walruses. Inuk harpoons one and just holds onto his line as the walrus struggles to get away! Damn, I was hoping to see footage of a real walrus pull!