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ESKIMO (director: W.S. Van Dyke; screenwriters: John Lee Mahin/based on the books “Der Eskimo” and “Die Flucht in’s Weisse Land” by Peter Freuchen; cinematographers: Clyde De Vinna/George Gordon Nogle/Josiah Roberts/Leonard Smith; editor: Conrad A. Nervig; music: William Axt; cast: Edgar Dearing (Constable Balk), Mala (Mala), Lotus Long (Iva), Edward Hearn (Captain’s Mate), Joe Sawyer (Sergeant Hunt), W.S. Van Dyke (Inspector White), Peter Freuchen (Captain); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Hunt Stromberg/W.S. Van Dyke; MGM; 1933)
Looks like a documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Peter Freuchen’s books on the Eskimo ways served as the basis for John Lee Mahin’s screenplay. Director W.S. Van Dyke (“The Thin Man“/”Trader Horn”/”Tarzan, the Ape Man“) took his cast and crew on location to the Arctic. He went to the topmost settlement in Alaska by whaling schooner with author Freuchen as his guide.ThereVan Dyke filmed the mostly Eskimo cast and reflected on the natives allowed to have more than one wife and showed them doing their normal activities, such as hunting walrus and spear-fishing for salmon. During these times the film looks like a documentary.

Van Dyke also added a fictionalized melodramatic story revolving around the film’s native star, Mala. It follows the Eskimo hunter over 500 miles across the frozen tundra with his wife and family. Their destination is Tjarnak, where Mala plans to trade furs for necessities with the white captain of a whaling expedition. Mala conducts a successful trade, but the ship’s captain is a treacherous character who rapes his wife. Mala harpoons him to death, and he’s tracked down by the Royal Canadian Mounties–only to escape from them and rejoin his eskimo clan in the wilderness.

Though not successful at the box-office, the film remains interesting as a look at an early way of shooting a docudrama.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”