The White Dawn (1974)

PG | 109 mins | Drama | July 1974

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HISTORY

A title card with the following statement appears before opening credits: “This story is based on true accounts and was filmed entirely where it happened – on Baffin Island, N.W.T., Canada, in the Arctic Archipelago.” The film begins with the voice-over narration of a ship captain’s journal entries, dated from the twelfth to the seventeenth of May, 1896. In the last entry, the captain reports that “Billy,” “Daggett,” “Portagee,” and a few others were lost at sea when they sailed after a whale in a rowboat.
       End credits conclude with the message: “The producers are grateful to the Eskimo people and to the Government of the Northwest Territories for their assistance in making this film.” (The people referred to as “Eskimo” in onscreen credits will be referred to as Inuit throughout the rest of this Note.)
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files, producer Martin Ransohoff first read James Houston’s novel in early 1970 and purchased the film rights within two days. A 14 Oct 1971 HR brief reported that Ransohoff’s company, Filmways&sortType=sortByExactMatch'>Filmways, was slated to produce, with principal photography set to begin spring 1972. However, filming did not start until the third week of May in 1974. In the meantime, Ransohoff left Filmways&sortType=sortByExactMatch'>Filmways and signed an exclusive development deal with Paramount Pictures Corp., and The White Dawn became the first project he produced under that deal. The budget was $1.7 million, as noted in an 8 May 1973 DV “Just for Variety” column by Army Archerd. Paramount cofinanced with Film Funding Corp., a conglomerate led by Arlene Sellers and Alex Winitsky that represented private investors.
       Shooting took place ... More Less

A title card with the following statement appears before opening credits: “This story is based on true accounts and was filmed entirely where it happened – on Baffin Island, N.W.T., Canada, in the Arctic Archipelago.” The film begins with the voice-over narration of a ship captain’s journal entries, dated from the twelfth to the seventeenth of May, 1896. In the last entry, the captain reports that “Billy,” “Daggett,” “Portagee,” and a few others were lost at sea when they sailed after a whale in a rowboat.
       End credits conclude with the message: “The producers are grateful to the Eskimo people and to the Government of the Northwest Territories for their assistance in making this film.” (The people referred to as “Eskimo” in onscreen credits will be referred to as Inuit throughout the rest of this Note.)
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files, producer Martin Ransohoff first read James Houston’s novel in early 1970 and purchased the film rights within two days. A 14 Oct 1971 HR brief reported that Ransohoff’s company, Filmways&sortType=sortByExactMatch'>Filmways, was slated to produce, with principal photography set to begin spring 1972. However, filming did not start until the third week of May in 1974. In the meantime, Ransohoff left Filmways&sortType=sortByExactMatch'>Filmways and signed an exclusive development deal with Paramount Pictures Corp., and The White Dawn became the first project he produced under that deal. The budget was $1.7 million, as noted in an 8 May 1973 DV “Just for Variety” column by Army Archerd. Paramount cofinanced with Film Funding Corp., a conglomerate led by Arlene Sellers and Alex Winitsky that represented private investors.
       Shooting took place on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. Cast and crew stayed in Frobisher Bay, “a bleak and ramshackle frontier settlement,” according to production notes. There, two high rise structures built by an American company that included apartments, a hotel, a post office, and a shopping mall, served as the residence for cast and crew. For production headquarters, an abandoned compound once used by the Canadian Air Force was transformed, including the addition of two sound stages to be used for interiors. The first four weeks of photography took place “four miles out on the frozen surface of Frobisher Bay,” and travel to the set took one hour via dog sleds and snowmobiles. Production then moved some miles outside town to a river called the Ikhalulik Sylvia Grenelle.
       Numerous animals were scheduled to be used in the film, including a polar bear, several walruses, caribou, seventy-five seals, and a Baleen whale. Referring to the film’s hunting scenes, the 17 Jul 1974 Var review stated that the “slaughter of animals (polar bears, seals, walruses) may arouse concern.” In addition to natural igloos built by Inuit hunters on the film, production notes stated that construction coordinator Bill Maldonado – who was not credited onscreen – created two eight-by-twelve-foot igloos from Styrofoam, with breakaway walls to accommodate camera equipment. During the shoot, some of the younger Inuits on set experienced, for the first time, many of the celebrations and rituals, including igloo-building, that were no longer a part of day-to-day life in their community.
       Simonie Kopapik, the actor who played “Sarkak,” was an Inuit hunter who had saved James Houston twenty years prior when the novelist was stranded on a dog sled journey near Cape Dorset. It was important to Houston that only Inuits were cast opposite the three lead actors, and director Philip Kaufman later described the Inuit performers who populated the cast as “simply the best natural actors [he’d] ever encountered.”
       A 23 Aug 1974 DV news item reported that the film was re-rated from ‘R’ to ‘PG’ by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), six weeks after it first opened in theaters. In order to achieve the PG, Ransohoff was made to remove six seconds of footage from the love scene that takes place atop a mountain. Upon its initial release, Movie Report advised readers to ignore the film’s R rating, a first for the publication, as stated in a 31 Jul 1974 DV article. Vincent Canby also spoke out against the R-rating, describing it as “absurd and a waste,” in his 22 Jul 1974 NYT review.
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GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
15 Jul 1974
p. 4705.
Daily Variety
12 Apr 1973
p. 1, 9.
Daily Variety
8 May 1973.
---
Daily Variety
17 Jul 1974.
---
Daily Variety
31 Jul 1974
p. 1, 7.
Daily Variety
23 Aug 1974
pp. 1-2.
Hollywood Reporter
13 Jul 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
14 Oct 1971.
---
Hollywood Reporter
11 May 1973
p. 18.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Jul 1973
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
17 Jul 1974
p. 3, 9.
Los Angeles Times
21 Jul 1974
p. 1, 38.
New York Times
22 Jul 1974
p. 41.
Variety
17 Jul 1974
p. 16.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Paramount Pictures Presents
A Martin Ransohoff Production
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
Assoc prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Asst film ed
SET DECORATOR
Const coord
COSTUMES
MUSIC
SOUND
Sd eff ed
VISUAL EFFECTS
Titles and opt eff
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel The White Dawn by James Houston (New York, 1971).
AUTHOR
DETAILS
Release Date:
July 1974
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 21 July 1974
Los Angeles opening: 24 July 1974
Production Date:
mid May--late July 1974 in the Arctic
Copyright Claimant:
American Film Properties
Copyright Date:
10 May 1974
Copyright Number:
LP43732
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Prints
Prints by Movielab
Duration(in mins):
109
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
23918
SYNOPSIS

In May 1896, an American ship sets sail from Massachusetts to the Arctic on a whale hunting expedition. One day, when a rowboat is sent out in pursuit of a whale, several sailors are lost at sea, including: Billy, the ship’s third mate; Daggett, a young, soft-spoken man; and Portagee, a seaman from the West Indies. After a brief search, the ship leaves them for dead. Soon after, the three survivors trek across the snowy tundra, weak from starvation and freezing temperatures. When an Inuit man discovers them, he goes for help and returns with two Inuit companions, including Kangiak, and two dogsleds. The Inuits transport the sailors back to their village of igloos, where Sarkak, their leader, determines that Billy, Daggett and Portagee are half-man, half-dog, and refers to them as his “dog-children.” The Inuits nurse Billy, Daggett, and Portagee back to health, although Portagee worries that their rescuers cannot be trusted. One day, Sarkak shows the threesome to a new igloo that was built just for them. The next morning, a polar bear threatens the village and Sarkak kills it with a spear. A nomadic Shaman and his young sidekick, “Dirty Boy,” arrive, and although Sarkak offers him the heart of the slain polar bear, the Shaman announces that the bear and its meat are bad luck. After the Shaman performs a ritual in which he speaks to the angry Bear Spirit, he determines that Sarkak’s dog-children will bring bad luck, but Sarkak laughs off the suggestion. Later, in the foreigners’ igloo, Billy discusses a scheme to rob the Inuits of their ivory and furs, while Portagee dreams of returning to his favorite port, Rio De Janeiro, ... +


In May 1896, an American ship sets sail from Massachusetts to the Arctic on a whale hunting expedition. One day, when a rowboat is sent out in pursuit of a whale, several sailors are lost at sea, including: Billy, the ship’s third mate; Daggett, a young, soft-spoken man; and Portagee, a seaman from the West Indies. After a brief search, the ship leaves them for dead. Soon after, the three survivors trek across the snowy tundra, weak from starvation and freezing temperatures. When an Inuit man discovers them, he goes for help and returns with two Inuit companions, including Kangiak, and two dogsleds. The Inuits transport the sailors back to their village of igloos, where Sarkak, their leader, determines that Billy, Daggett and Portagee are half-man, half-dog, and refers to them as his “dog-children.” The Inuits nurse Billy, Daggett, and Portagee back to health, although Portagee worries that their rescuers cannot be trusted. One day, Sarkak shows the threesome to a new igloo that was built just for them. The next morning, a polar bear threatens the village and Sarkak kills it with a spear. A nomadic Shaman and his young sidekick, “Dirty Boy,” arrive, and although Sarkak offers him the heart of the slain polar bear, the Shaman announces that the bear and its meat are bad luck. After the Shaman performs a ritual in which he speaks to the angry Bear Spirit, he determines that Sarkak’s dog-children will bring bad luck, but Sarkak laughs off the suggestion. Later, in the foreigners’ igloo, Billy discusses a scheme to rob the Inuits of their ivory and furs, while Portagee dreams of returning to his favorite port, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Embracing the Inuit culture, Daggett learns some of their words and helps Kangiak hunt a seal. When Sarkak announces that they are moving locations, Billy wants to remain behind, convinced that the ship’s crew will come looking for them, but Portagee convinces him that they will not survive on their own. At Sarkak’s behest, the Inuits destroy the entrances to their old igloos so that evil spirits cannot enter. In a warmer spot located by a river, the Inuits invite Daggett on another hunt, and he helps them kill several birds. Sarkak offers one of his wives, Neevee, to Daggett as thanks. After he pursues her on a romp through the tundra, Daggett makes love to Neevee at the top of a hill. Elsewhere, Billy demonstrates knife-throwing to one of the Inuit men, Sowniapik, then makes a few bets, wagering his coat buttons. After performing poorly on purpose, Billy tricks Sowniapik into betting his two daughters for the knife, losing both girls to Billy. Tunu, a friend of Sartak’s, arrives with his son, a great wrestler. Tunu’s son fights Sartak’s son in a civilized wrestling match and wins. Billy then pits Portagee against Tunu’s son, but the Inuit boy wins two times in a row. Angry, Portagee attacks Tunu’s son and brings him to the ground while Billy counts to three. Disgusted that Sartak’s community has been upset by “savages,” Tunu takes his son and leaves. When the Inuits bring a rowboat to shore, Billy suggests that a good sailor could take it across the ocean. Although Daggett doesn’t want to steal the boat or any supplies, Portagee and Billy insist they must sneak away. Instructing Daggett to steal all the fish from Sartak’s camp, Billy prepares the boat and Portagee steals fabric for a sail. The men head out on the river, but when they spot ice floes on the horizon, Daggett refuses to go any further. As Daggett tries to pull the sail down, Billy stands up to stop him, and the boat tips over. Stranded again, the men are saved by one of the Inuits, who has come searching for them in his kayak. As the men return to Sartak’s camp, they are met by disappointed stares. Fearing for their survival now that all the fish are gone, the group moves locations again. Finding no fish for five days, the Inuits deduce that the Sea Goddess is upset with them. However, they soon spot a large group of walruses and slay several of them. As winter approaches, Sartak orders the Inuit men to build a large igloo so they can “dance away the cold” inside. When the igloo is finished, everyone gathers together, singing, dancing, and playing games. In a secluded partition of the igloo, Daggett pursues Neevee but stops when he finds her lying beside Sartak. However, Sartak invites him in, and Daggett and Neevee make love in the midst of several others. Later, Sartak’s first wife warns Neevee that Daggett shouldn’t be in their igloo without Sartak’s permission, but Neevee ignores her. Sometime later, the Shaman returns, bearing a set of false, pointy teeth, and announcing that the sea is angry with them. He says no more seals will come due to the dog-children; however, the Inuits ignore his warning and manage to kill several seals. Portagee and Billy make alcohol with some berries the Inuits have collected for them. They force Daggett to taste it first, then share it with some of the Inuits, who have varying degrees of tolerance for the alcohol. In her igloo, Daggett makes love to Neevee and explains that he wants to settle down with her. Later, Billy finds Sowniapik’s daughters in bed with Portagee. Irate, Billy drags Portagee outside their igloo, where the men discover the body of an Inuit girl who froze to death after passing out in the snow, drunk. Sartak finds Daggett in bed with Neevee and screams at him, saying that the foreigners have done nothing but eat their food and sleep with their wives, and now, they have brought death to one of their women. Sartak abandons the camp the next day with his older wife and one other companion. The eldest Inuit woman, Old Mother, prays for salvation, crying that they no longer have a leader. The Shaman and Dirty Boy appear, performing a ritual in which the Shaman calls for “the father of the Dog-boy.” Later that morning, the Inuits attack and kill Portagee and Billy. Realizing he is next, Daggett runs. Although Sangiak tries to stop the others from killing him, one of the men shoots Daggett with two arrows. Sangiak warns that the three men’s ghosts will haunt them forever, while Neevee cries over Daggett’s corpse. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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