Documentary fictions are sometimes characterized as “hybrids.” The term is often applied to independent or experimental work, but few movies deserve it more than MGM’s “Eskimo,” from 1933 (available on DVD from Warner Archive).
Shot in northern Alaska with a largely Inuit — and Inuit-speaking — cast, “Eskimo” was one of four racially charged ethnographic romances made on location during the late silent and early sound period by W. S. Van Dyke (1889-1943). The son of a California judge and a concert pianist turned actress, Van Dyke made his stage debut at 3, broke into movies as an assistant director for D. W. Griffith and, directing nearly 30 features between 1930 and 1940, would be MGM’s most reliable workhorse, affectionately nicknamed “One-Shot Woody.”
Van Dyke was assigned to work with and wound up displacing the pioneering documentarian Robert Flaherty on the 1928 Tahiti-set adventure “White Shadows in the South Seas” (previously reissued by Warner Archive). He followed up with a second Tahitian romance, “The Pagan” (1929), a vehicle for Ramon Novarro, and then MGM’s most elaborate location-adventure to date, “Trader Horn” (1931). Shot over seven months in four central African colonies, the movie required what has been described as the largest safari on record (some 35 travelers and almost 200 indigenous people, and 90 tons of equipment) and copious infusions of alcohol. One crew member was eaten by a crocodile and another trampled by a rhino.
After four back-lot productions, including “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1932), Van Dyke returned to the field with “Eskimo.” It’s a movie that marks the end of a period when, as Kevin Brownlow wrote in “The War, the West, and the Wilderness,” his history of silent-era dramatic travelogues, “vast expeditions from Hollywood set out like conquistadors for distant lands.”
Among other things, “Eskimo” (filmed in a location that Van Dyke found even more rugged than equatorial Africa) documents spear fishing and walrus hunting, a caribou stampede into the sea, stunt kayaking and celebratory dances to enliven the brutal tale of the great hunter Mala, who loses his wife to a lecherous sea captain. (The charismatic Mala was played by Ray Wise — credited as Ray Mala — the child of an Inuit mother and a Russian Jewish father, and himself a Hollywood camera operator.)
“Eskimo” predates the strict Hollywood Production Code, and nearly as impressive as the use of Inuit dialogue (translated in flowery English intertitles) is the movie’s frankly sensationalist eschewing of Christian morality. Advertised as a “Weird Tale of the Arctic,” “Eskimo” showed the Inuit as polygamous and even polyandrous, as when several married women offer sexual comfort to the bereaved Mala. The whites, by contrast, are exploitative and cruel, raping and killing Mala’s wife (whose death seems to be of no consequence) and later persecuting him after he takes revenge.
While “Eskimo” makes some attempt to respect another culture, the same cannot be said for “Trader Horn” (also newly available in DVD from Warner Archive). This unsavory circus of racialized sadism exploits Africa as a special effect with travelogue footage of bare-breasted women, fierce-looking pygmies, and masses of crocodiles, but it was only partly filmed there. The more vicious animal fights were shot in Mexico, while virtually all of the dialogue scenes were staged on the MGM lot: “The hippos are getting pretty thick,” the title character (Harry Carey) explains in one cutaway shot.
Although overwhelmed by Van Dyke’s hours of documentary footage, the studio eventually fashioned a suitably lurid narrative in which Trader Horn and his young sidekick (Duncan Renaldo, a Romanian-born actor who would later play the Cisco Kid on television) search the jungle for a missionary’s daughter captured by cannibals and raised to be the tribe’s irascible “white goddess” (Edwina Booth).
Supposedly cast for her blond tresses and fiery temper, Booth runs around half-naked for most of the movie. Accounts vary as to whether she picked up a tropical disease in Africa or had a nervous breakdown upon her return, but in any case she sued MGM for damages, and her career never recovered from her appearance in what was the studio’s most profitable film of 1931. Van Dyke went on to direct “Manhattan Melodrama,” “San Francisco,” “Marie Antoinette,” “Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever” and four “Thin Man” movies, to name a few.
‘The Epic of Everest’
“The Epic of Everest,” the official record of the ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain, filmed by Capt. John Noel, is far more documentary than fiction, but, as restored by the British Film Institute and issued on Blu-ray by Kino Classics, it’s as mystical as it is material.
Part of the casualty-ridden expedition led by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine (neither of whom returned), Captain Noel carried (or had carried) his specially outfitted 35-millimeter camera 23,000 feet up the mountain. At once scientific and sublime, the movie makes expressive use of time-lapse photography, telephoto lens shots and tinted film stock. The Himalayas appear bathed in rose-colored light or mysteriously illuminated from within. Captain Noel punctuates the attempt to scale the mountain he calls “Chomolungma — Goddess Mother of the World” with sequences shot in several Tibetan monasteries and frames the expedition as a Promethean assault: “The Gods of the Lamas shall deny you. …”
A showman as well as an adventurer, Captain Noel exhibited “The Epic of Everest” as a total experience involving stage sets, painted backdrops and a musical ensemble of Tibetan monks. During the mid-1920s, the movie toured Britain, Germany and North America (where it reportedly crisscrossed the continent seven times and was seen by more than a million people).
The film institute version includes a new electronic score composed by the former glam rocker Simon Fisher Turner, whose soundtracks include four films by Derek Jarman. Unlike other such accompaniments, Mr. Fisher Turner’s adds to, rather than subtracts from, the movie — one of the most outstanding and historically significant restorations of recent years.
THE DUKE OF BURGUNDYSelf-consciously high-toned, languorous erotica, Peter Strickland’s second feature unfolds in an all-female world and pivots on a romantic sadomasochistic relationship. It is “quite unlike any other Sapphic S-and-M lepidoptery-themed psychological romance you have ever seen,” A. O. Scott wrote in The New York Times in January. On Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Instant Video. (Shout! Factory)
LOVE & MERCY Paul Dano plays the young ’60s Brian Wilson and John Cusack an older, more reclusive version in Bill Pohlad’s unconventional portrait of the Beach Boys’ brilliant, troubled leader. The film “doesn’t claim to solve the mystery of Brian Wilson, but it succeeds beyond all expectation in making you hear where he was coming from,” Mr. Scott wrote in The Times in June. On Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Instant Video. (Lionsgate)
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD George Miller resurrects his post-apocalyptic Übermensch, with Tom Hardy in the role first played by Mel Gibson, and Charlize Theron as an equally fierce road warrior. On Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3-D, DVD and Amazon Instant Video. “It’s all great fun, and quite rousing as well — a large-scale genre movie that is at once unpretentious and unafraid to bring home a message,” Mr. Scott wrote in The Times in May. (Warner Bros.)
SAINT LAURENT Atmosphere trumps narrative in Bertrand Bonello’s leisurely biopic, an extended portrait of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. “In dispensing with the usual plodding routines of the biopic, Mr. Bonello offers a perspective on his subject — played in his prime by the epicene, hollow-cheeked Gaspard Ulliel — that is at once intimate and detached,” Mr. Scott wrote in The Times in May. On Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Instant Video. (Sony Pictures Classics)
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT Marion Cotillard is the first bona fide movie star to grace the hardscrabble world of the Belgian neo Neo-Realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and she rises to the occasion with a fierce portrait of a woman fighting to keep her job. “Nobody is rich or greedy, though some people are perhaps more selfish than others,” Mr. Scott wrote in The Times in December. On Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Instant Video. (Criterion)
A picture caption last Sunday with the Video column misidentified an actor from “Eskimo” (1933). The male actor shown with an unidentified female actor is also unknown. He is not Ray Mala.