A movie directed by W.S. Van Dyke about life among the Eskimos. There are scenes of walrus, whale, caribou and polar bear hunting. We see Eskimos living in tents and also building igloos. Some of the Eskimos lend their wives to friends and travelers, and we see some dancing ceremonies. The Eskimos travel by dog sled, small boats and kayaks. The movie is shot in a documentary style and the Eskimos speak an Inuit language, that is translated by intertitles. The cast is made up of natives Eskimos, most of whom had no previous acting experience. The screenplay for The Savage Innocents (1960) was based on this movie.
Things seem to be going well for the little Inuit community until one of them brings back a gun from the white traders. Now Aba the wife of another Eskimo wants her husband Mala to make the journey to get a gun to help improve his hunting. When they get to the traders, the captain gives Mala a rifle for his furs, but he also insists on sleeping with his wife. Mala is highly offended. particularly when Aba comes home giggling and drunk.
Mala agrees to go whale hunting with the captain as long as he guarantees that his wife stays at home in the igloo. There are some great scenes of hunting the whales in small boats. After the catch, the captain sends for Aba again. The captain gets her drunk again and takes advantage of her and then Aba stumbles home drunk but falls down in the snow. She is shot and killed by a white hunter who mistakes her for a seal.
When Mala returns home he finds out what happened. Mala visits the captain, harpoon in hand and kills him. Mala then takes his children back to their home land. When he returns to his village he finds that his mother has died too. When a caribou herd passes by thhe Eskimos take to the boats and hunt them as they are crossing the water. More singing and dancing take place as they celebrate the successful hunt.
Mala changes his name to Kripak, which is a sound he heard a bird call. Kripak starts to make a new life for himself and gets a new wife. Out checking his traps, Kripak finds some nearly dead white men whose sled had crashed. The white men end up being Royal Mounted police who are searching for the captain's killer. They bring Kripak back to the white men's post for questioning and chain him up. Kripak, anxious to get back and hunt for his family escapes at night.
On the way back he is forced to eat his dogs, one by one. Mala plans to leave his family so that he won't be captured again. The mounties arrive just as he is leaving. Mala and his new wife walk off into the ice and the mounties wish him luck.
One of the more interesting things about the movie is that it is based on the books of Peter Freuchen, who plays the captain in the movie. In real life, Freuche lived for many years in Greenland and was married to an Inuit woman, with whom he had two children. The movie, filmed just at the beginning of the sound era, makes great use of many silent movie features. The story is mostly told with the pictures and we are left to interpret much of the dialogue. The Eskimos are presented as friendly, happy, honest and intelligent. This was a very well done movie, particularly since it was from 1933.
NY Times Review
Drama of Frozen North.
By MORDAUNT HALL.
Published: November 15, 1933
It is an exciting and often grim melodrama that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer launched last night at the Astor under the title of "Eskimo." It was produced by W. S. Van Dyke in Northern Alaska with a cast composed chiefly of Eskimos, and the dialogue, which except for occasional lines spoken by white men, is recorded in the language of the natives and translated for the benefit of the audience by the old-fashioned subtitles. The variious incidents are greatly enhanced by the recording of vocal and incidental sounds and noises.
The story of the picture is attributed to two books by Peter Freuchen, who also portrays a villainous captain of a trading ship. Mr. Freuchen was among the audience.
Although Mr. Van Dyke has dramatized his episodes very cleverly, quite a number of them are reminiscent of those depicted in other productions of this type. There is the walrus hunt, with the monsters grunting as they slide, sometimes, to safety in the water. There is the polar bear which is speared by the alert Eskimos, the caribou hunt with thousands of the denizens of the north tearing along and being steered into the water by the natives.
There are occasional marvelous close-ups of the stampeding caribous, and one of the outstanding glimpses is that of two of these animals with horns locked, struggling to free themselves. As in Robert J. Flaherty's old silent work, "Nanook of the North," the early flashes are concerned merely with the hunters, their wives, their children and their customs of living.
Walrus meat is a delicacy eaten raw and thoroughly enjoyed. Summer is beautiful, but when Winter comes there exists the fear of starvation, and the hero of this tale, Mala, always succeeds in saving his people. Igloos are built and the old, the middle-aged and the youngsters pile into the ice structures.
The melodramatic incidents begin with the arrival of a "house that floats," the captain of which not only cheats the natives in trading but takes advantage of their women. He gives one Eskimo girl drinks until she giggles and staggers, and Mala's vengeance is stabbing the captain to death with a harpoon. Later one perceives an outpost of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and two of the sergeants are ordered to go in search of Mala, who, after saving them from death in a blizzard, is tempted to go back with them.
When the Inspector of the Royal Canadian Mounted reaches the post to question Mala he learns from the sergeants that the prisoner has not been put in irons and is at the moment out hunting. The Inspector, incidentally portrayed by Mr. Van Dyke himself, orders Mala to be handcuffed to his bench when he returns, and one of the most harrowing episodes is where this Eskimo struggles to pull his hand out of the iron bracelet until he frees himself.
Mala's escape is also punctuated with gruesome scenes, for he discovers that the cartridges he has brought with him do not fit the rifle, and therefore the weapon is useless. He must eat, so he kills one of the huskies for food. Dog after dog serves to keep him and the remaining huskies alive during the arduous trek across the snow and ice. Then there is the struggle between the exhausted Mala and the last dog. How Mala cheats the Royal Canadian Mounted men in the latter scenes is another tragic note, with which the picture ends.
Although the film is very lengthy, the interest in the different incidents is adroitly sustained, and there are even moments in which there is some genuinely effective comedy.
Besides the excellent scenes of the caribou herd, the spearing of salmon, the killing of birds and the attack on the walruses, there is a thrilling episode devoted to the harpooning of a whale.
It is a remarkable film, one that often awakens wonder as to how the camera men were able to photograph some of the scenes and record the impressive sounds. The acting of the Eskimos, or their ability to do what was asked of them by the director, is really extraordinary. The Eskimo in the leading male rôle actually gives one the impression of the moods and feeling of the character. Several of the girls are very good looking and deliver performances which are wonderfully natural.