In Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents, the blinding white landscape acts as a serene reminder of epic simplicity, and what will be lost when the evils of the white settlers begin to take root. Inuk (Anthony Quinn), Ray’s hero and central metaphor, lives a solitary life with only the pressing social obligation to marry a woman on his mind.
In these early scenes, time and space are not defined, and the film experiments with the idea of being completely immersed in the daily routines and traditions of the Eskimo, albeit a stylized over-the-top Hollywood version. Ray sprinkles in some striking on-location shots of men sledding through the endless white blanket of ice and snow or in a canoe chasing a horde of Walruses on the open water, and these moments give the film a staggering sense of place. Unfortunately, when Inuk accidently kills a preacher, ironically because the man won’t sleep with his wife, the film becomes somewhat preachy and simplistic.
Aside from one horrific sequence in the civilized camp, the relationship between Eskimo and Caucasian society gets relegated to interactions between the Inuk and a Trooper (Pete O’Toole) who’s been tasked to bring him back for trial. Ray hammers home the point that these two ideologies are so far apart communication becomes moot, yet these are the scenes where the film relies too heavily upon narrative convention. The Savage Innocents is an oddity of massive proportions, an anti-adventure film set in one of the world’s last frontiers.