White Wilderness (1958)

JAMES ALGAR

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1958. . Screenplay by James Algar. Cinematography by , , , , . Produced by . Music by . Film Editing by .

Disney’s team of documentary filmmakers lug their cameras to the icy north (mainly in Alberta), exploring the flora and fauna that populate the Arctic and creating a fascinating series of vignettes of various animal species that will thrill the young and the young at heart. Among the charmers captured in beautifully clear and dynamic film stock are frolicking polar bear cubs, walruses catching some rays on ice floes and the evils of wolverines hunting their prey. The realities of survival are only minimally softened for the intended young viewers, everybody’s got to eat in the Arctic just like everywhere else, and at some point we have to deal with the fact that two different animal species that we want to cuddle with are going to enter a game of survival with each other (the wolverine’s pursuit of an osprey is a particularly terrifying sequence).

Then there’s the part of the film that is most notorious today, the footage of lemmings leaping to their watery deaths in order to prevent their overgrown population from starving; the filmmakers realized during production that this myth about lemmings wasn’t true but, rather than deny the viewer the excitement of this supposed self-sacrifice, imported the animals, set up a fake mass suicide and murdered the poor little critters for the camera. Of course, this means that a number of other things in the film could be staged…are they even in the North Pole or is it a set? Who knows, and who cares, since while it is far from the height of scientific rigour, it’s a thrilling hour-plus of entertainment and among the best of the studio’s true-adventure films.

Academy Award: Best Documentary Feature
Nomination: Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

Berlin Film Festival Award: Golden Bear, Best Documentary

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