The Savage Innocents (1960)
Olive Films (06/27/17):
THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS (1960)
NEW 2017 1080p HD REMASTER BD50
Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Original aspect ratio: 2.35:1
After recording a podcast on the works of Nicholas Ray, I immediately had to add him to my list of all-time favorite filmmakers. Around the same time as Olive Films’ wonderful release of his previously hard to find THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS, Criterion was kind enough to put out my favorite Ray film, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. So it’s safe to say that I am downright giddy at being able to finally see a great transfer of a film that I have been waiting for. THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS starts with a great title alone, followed by a plot that is sure to magnetize you to the screen immediately. Although, the questionable casting (initially) of Anthony Quinn as an eskimo may raise an eyebrow, you learn to adapt as the story progresses. It may riddled with dated elements and perhaps guilty of being a tad bit long, but it’s still essential viewing for Ray fans in such a pristine presentation. This is a moral case study worth pondering over long after the closing credits conclude.
The hero of the film, though played by the white, 45-year-old Anthony Quinn, is an almost childlike Inuit named Inuk. We get a taste for different cultures almost instantly when Inuk returns to the home of his friend, Anarwik, to find the man and his wife "laughing," as they say euphemistically. Rather than excuse himself with embarrassment, Inuk chats with the two, who talk right back as if nothing could be more common. Anarwik even offers to let Inuk "laugh" with his wife and takes extreme offense when Inuk old-fashionably (to our eyes, at least) turns him down, prompting a violent argument. For Ray to so casually introduce the idea of wife-sharing and polyamorous relationships into his film marks an open break from the system of values he had to uphold and only tacitly subvert in Hollywood. And while the film often feels like an old studio feature, with its racial miscasting and awkward transitions between studio sets and location shots, this defiant approach to sex and tangible violence (in both the animal killing and nonjudgmental physicality between characters) shows unmistakable defiance and Ray’s audacity to challenge the establishment like he has going all the way back to saying “God was wrong” in BIGGER THAN LIFE.
Apart from the sexual liberation of his non-Western characters (including some sprinkles of nudity), Ray also mocks the the emphasis placed on technology, capitalism, and God. Inuk's innocence is on its purest display in his quest for a wife, even if he does threaten to kill a rival suitor for the woman he wants before deciding to settle for her sister. But when he and his new bride, Asiak, go hunting a polar bear, their long, traditional method of wearing down the beast abruptly cut short with the crack of a rifle, a thunderclap so unexpected after 40 minutes of tribal leaving that Inuk's own bewilderment and shock may well match the audience's own. Now Inuk gets introduced to the white culture through the technology of its weaponry; when white people actually show up this movie, they don't do themselves much more credit than their insidious invention. A true middle finger to convention, THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is almost a prelude to the idea of “free love” which erupted later during the hippie movement. Of course, consequences occur and you're left with considerations towards what's taken place throughout. Combined with an almost revelatory take on open sexuality, it does provide other insights into hunting as both a metaphor and cold, harsh reality that could serve as a cautionary tale revolving around our evolutionary instincts. It’s nature vs. human nature that remains the central conflict throughout in ways that are striking both visually and narratively. There are a couple of blemishes that occurred in post: Peter O’Toole’s regrettable spaghetti-western dubbing as well as the rather sloppy matching of the astonishing location footage and the inert studio photography. But its strengths outweigh the weaknesses as in all of Ray’s work that I’ve seen.
The performances are strong, the cinematography is breathtaking and once again, Ray’s sensibilities remain revolutionary for its time. (Prescient in its take on sexual expression as well). Ray has always had an ongoing war with social and aesthetic conservatism as a storyteller which has excited me to no end, in hopes of being able to catch all of his features within my lifetime. In THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS, there is a romanticized but often realistic view of another culture through its own prism that has a mournful, melancholy tone once conflict ensues. He doesn’t judge the fallible characters and encounters throughout but searches for emotional truth in ways that are haunting and remarkable. For the time being, it’s not in my upper tier of Ray films mainly due to preference, but I still highly recommend seeing just how undaunted his societal critiques were, with incredible directorial assurance to back them up and complement the mood. This is another title that’s been long overdue for a reevaluation and I will definitely be giving this another look in the future much like his other work. B